A Kiss Before Dying by Ira Levin is a prime example of how mysteries were written. Before CSI and the overload of forensic science became the norm for a good crime/mystery. This tale is as much about the drama of the characters as it is about the crimes themselves.
“…His plans had been running so beautifully, so goddamned beautifully, and now she was going to smash them all. Hate erupted and flooded through him, gripping his face with jaw aching pressure. That was all right though; the lights were out.
And she, she kept on sobbing weakly in the dark, her cheek pressed against his bare chest, her tears and her breath burning hot. He wanted to push her away…”
Every young man makes a plan and he has made one for his whole future. For his life beyond the small town he grew up in and the traps that had befallen his friends and his father. Trapping him in a dead end job with an unhappy wife and a dead end life. That was not for him. That was why he was gone into the military and then to college. For his future. For his life and she was about to take that all away from him. But he wasn’t going to let that happen, he wasn’t going to let her take that all away from him.
“…It still wasn’t too late. People wrote suicide notes and then stalled around before actually doing it. He looked at his watch; 9:20. The earliest Ellen could get the note would be…three o’clock. Five hours and forty minutes. No step by step planning now. It would have to be quick, positive. No trickery that counted on her doing a certain thing at a certain time. No poison. How else do people kill themselves? In five hours and forty minutes she must be dead…”
A Kiss Before Dying was written back in 1953. The stark differences in a crime novel then and what is now are startling. This is beyond pretend noire. This is the real thing. This is from when Hitchcock reigned supreme and not someone that gets a honorable mention in film class. The subtleties, the pacing, the slow build of tension until when the killer is unveiled and the scope of his plan becomes clear. This is what writing was and should have always been. There is some violence in this tale but actually very little of it. It is not the act of murder itself that holds importance, but the motive and the slow unraveling of the crime that on the surface, seems to be one thing but is in essence, only the strand in a much larger web of blood and deceit.
Levin is an accomplished author whose tales of crime and horror are now classics. The Boys From Brazil. The Stepford Wives. Rosemary’s Baby. You’ve heard of them and you owe it to yourself as a reader to enjoy them. A Kiss Before Dying is another such novel.
A very good read.