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Gurglings of a Putrid Stream

Thoughts on books and other assorted topics.

See also:  http://goppf.wikidot.com/swstart

My name:  Brian Martin

A Kiss Before Dying by Ira Levin

A Kiss Before Dying - Ira Levin

The first third (plus a few pages) of Ira Levin's A Kiss Before Dying is among the best suspense fiction you will ever read. I'm certain it was the memory of this portion of the book that earned it a 1954 Edgar Award, but the rest of it explains the category: Best First Novel.

It's about a man whose plans to marry into wealth are jeopardized when his girlfriend, the daughter of a rich copper magnate, tells him she's pregnant. Knowing her strict father will cut her off if he discovers the truth (and he will, in a hurry, because she's two months already), he feels betrayed, helpless, and trapped. But he's not one to give up his dream easily, and he devises a plan to salvage the situation. He is, as we discover throughout the novel, a man with many plans.

None of them, however, are as deliciously chilling as those of the first act -- plus a few pages. I stress this because the beginning of the second reveals the meaning of a number of small clues introduced in the first that add a terrible poignancy to previous events. When Stephen King referred to Levin as "the Swiss watchmaker of suspense novels," he could have held up this section as Exhibit A. It unfolds gradually, yet with a dreadful inexorability derived from the precision with which Levin merges character, situation, and event. It is, in short, a little piece of perfection.

Hardly surprising, then, that the rest of the book is unable to live up to it. In the last two-thirds, we get a new character who, though Levin tries very hard, never comes across as quite believable; an existing character whose sudden proficiency in spycraft is laughable, really; and a drawn out climax that holds no surprises whatsoever. The best thing about it is simply that it fills out the book, making it publishable, and thereby giving us an opportunity to read the first part.

It rarely happens, but sometimes that's enough.