As many of you will know, one of my long-term aims has been to seek out lots of inverted mysteries with the idea of at some point making a top five list. I hate to spoil my future work before I’ve even really started it but as things stand A Kiss Before Dying is easily the best inverted crime novel that I have read. Suffice it to say that when the time comes, this may place in that list.
Ira Levin’s story is broken into three sections, each of them titled for a woman. The first of these is told from the perspective of a male character who is dating the daughter of a prominent industrialist. He receives the undesirable news that she has become pregnant and, realizing that her father will likely disown her if he learns about this, pushes her to take some pills to make their problem go away.
When she tells him the next day that the pills didn’t work, he begins to panic. He agrees that they should get married but persuades her that they need to wait for the weekend. And in those few days he plots another way to get rid of his problem.
As for those other two sections – I want to be careful not to spoil anything too much. I can say that the second section sees the victim’s sister arrive in town with the hope of proving that she did not commit suicide and to identify her murderer. This section is really quite wonderfully written and pulled off a reveal that I think was one of the most satisfying surprises I’ve had reading in a while. As for that final section, all I shall say is that it’s named for the third sister and centers around her interactions with the killer.
One of the most impressive things about this novel is its careful construction. Take that first section of the novel which manages to make the reader feel like they have got to know the murderer. I managed to get all the way to the second section of the book before I realized that Levin has avoided ever giving you the character’s name, either in conversation or narration. This allows the writer to then switch format from the inverted style to a more traditional investigation format.
I was similarly impressed by the character of the killer, who is one of the coldest, most calculating figures I’ve yet to encounter in an inverted mystery. Sometimes when a character is written that way it becomes hard to understand why anyone would like him and be taken in by him, yet here it is clear that those traits are part of what enables him to seem devoted and caring. When he does kill his girlfriend it is all the more vicious and terrible because of the way he has manipulated her and, in that moment, the reader realizes that this is not the action of a selfish, frightened man who doesn’t want his dreams to come to an end but those of a sociopath who sees his girlfriend as a dead end to be disposed of. It is chilling stuff.
I also appreciated that the character’s plan is not allowed to go flawlessly in spite of the killer’s cold efficiency. He endures a couple of false starts and we see him having to rethink and recalculate how he will achieve his ends. My only issue with this first section of the novel is a moment in which he plays a piece of music on the jukebox which reinforces his intent, though his victim doesn’t recognize that in the moment. The author emphasizes the thematic relevance of the song by quoting portions of the lyrics while the action of the scene takes place. I can forgive it however as I do think it has a purpose. Later in the book Levin uses the same technique at a crucial point to much better effect and that moment would not work without the author having already used the technique once.
The second and the third sections of the novel are just as gripping as the opening as we wonder whether the killer can be identified and then, in the final section, what they will do next. There are a couple of moments that I think are genuinely shocking and because it is as much a thriller as it is a mystery novel, we may wonder if the killer will even be apprehended at all.
While the killer is a fascinating figure, the supporting characters Levin creates stand out just as much. Each of the three Kingship sisters are distinctive and credible, each having their own set of daddy issues created by their domineering father. I never struggled to believe that they would fall into the murderer’s orbit, nor that he would be able to manipulate them and I appreciated that Levin allows us the time to get to know each of them to make those interactions credible.
Similarly I appreciated the complex character of Leo Kingship, a man who is responsible for his daughters’ isolation and who we see transform a little as a result of his experiences. It would be easy to make a relatively minor character like this fit a standard type and yet Levin allows him to have conflicting tendencies and motivations. Some other relatively minor supporting characters receive similar thoughtful treatment.
The novel builds to an absolute belter of a conclusion that not only resolves our immediate questions of what will happen to the various characters but also recalls one of the book’s most striking images, providing some thematic closure as well. It makes for a remarkable end to a remarkable book that I think will stay with me for some time.
Vintage Mysteries Challenge: At least two deaths with different means (How)