Signet, 1954, 191 pages
A Kiss Before Dying not only debuted the talent of best-selling novelist Ira Levin to rave reviews, it also set a new standard in the art of mystery and suspense. Now a modern classic, as gripping in its tautly plotted action as it is penetrating in its exploration of a criminal mind, it tells the shocking tale of a young man who will stop at nothing--not even murder--to get where he wants to go. For he has dreams; plans. He also has charm, good looks, sex appeal, intelligence. And he has a problem. Her name is Dorothy; she loves him, and she's pregnant. The solution may demand desperate measures. But, then, he looks like the kind of guy who could get away with murder. Compellingly, step by determined step, the novel follows this young man in his execution of one plan he had neither dreamed nor foreseen. Nor does he foresee how inexorably he will be enmeshed in the consequences of his own extreme deed.
A Kiss Before Dying is a taut little thriller about a sociopath who conceives an ingenuous plan to seduce the daughter of a wealthy copper baron. Except she goes and gets pregnant before his plan can come to fruition. Since Daddy is the moralistic disinheriting type, our protagonist figures a kid before they are properly married and he's had time to work his charms and soften the old man up will just ruin everything. When he can't persuade her to get rid of it, he's left with only one option — a well-planned murder in which he manages to make it look like a suicide, and then avoid any connection between him and the dead girl.
Which allows him to move on to daughter #2.
But daughter #2 starts playing Girl Detective, and convinced her sister didn't commit suicide, starts putting clues together, though not making the final connection until too late.
So he decides third time's the charm: there were three daughters, and after all that research he did to seduce the first two, he knows the oldest sister pretty well...
As improbable as this story may sound, I didn't spot any real plot holes. Our charming and manipulative protagonist needed a bit of luck here and there, but the coincidences never stretched credibility to the breaking point.
This book defies anyone's desire for a "relatable" or sympathetic protagonist. The main character is a murderous, gold-digging sociopath, without a single redeeming quality. You want him to trip up and get caught, and you want his victims to get away, but at the same time, the exciting part is finding out how he's going to get away with it.
A Kiss Before Dying is dated now — it was written in 1954 and it's set in the early fifties, so the campus life and the more visible class distinctions have changed. But it was still interesting for that view of the era, and also the changing attitudes towards abortion.
There have been two movie versions. The first was made in 1956. I was unable to obtain a copy - it's not available on Netflix or Amazon.
The version I was able to see was the 1991 version with Matt Dillon and Sean Young.
A Kiss Before Dying (1991)
While loosely faithful to the novel, despite being set in the 80s instead of the 50s, and replacing the three sisters with twins, this movie had some of the worst dialog and acting I've ever seen.
The hair and makeup and clothes are painfully eighties, and the aesthetic is more that of a horror movie than a suspense thriller, starting with the opening scene, depicting the first sister's "splat" after plummeting off a roof in gory, blood-spattered detail. There are multiple (literally) steamy sex scenes to give it an R rating. I know now why Sean Young essentially disappeared once she became too old for nude scenes.
This movie has none of the tension or cleverness of the book; it's just a psychopath strangling his way through one lucky break after another, with yet another climax featuring a dumb girl who forgets how to unlock doors when a psychopath is chasing her.
Verdict: Read the book, skip the movie, at least the more recent version. A Kiss Before Dying is a clever little 1950s thriller, all plot and smart characters, and not too much suspension of disbelief (though the ending is wrapped up a little too neatly). 8/10.
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