A Kiss Before Dying

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A modern classic, this novel set a new standard in the art of mystery and suspense in its exploration of the criminal mind.

A Kiss Before Dying not only debuted the talent of best-selling novelist Ira Levin to rave reviews and an Edgar Award, it also set a new standard in the art of psychological suspense. 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, 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.


Praise for Ira Levin’s

A Kiss Before Dying

“Here is not merely an extraordinary first but an extraordinary suspense novel by the highest professional standards; and you have an evening of incomparable excitement ahead of you. . . . Levin combines great talent for pure novel writing—full bodied characterization, subtle psychological exploration, vivid evocation of locale—with strict technical whodunit tricks as dazzling as anything ever brought off by Carr, Rawson, Queen or Christie.”

—Anthony Boucher, The New York Times

“A remarkably constructed story depicting an inconceivably vicious character in episodes of chilling horror.”

—The Chicago Sunday Tribune

“The book is a succession of solid and quite legitimate surprises, the suspense is admirably sustained, the detail is thorough and convincing, and the writing is considerably above the level usually associated with fictional crime and passion. Altogether, a very satisfying contribution, and one that is a pleasure to recommend.”

—The New Yorker

“All in all, it’s probably the most striking debut of the year.”

—The New York Herald Tribune

The persons and incidents described in this book are fictional; any similarity to specific individuals and events is unintended by the author. The places, too—with the exception of certain points of interest in New York City—are imaginary and not intended to represent specific places


GENIUS, THAT MUCH OVERUSED word, shows itself early. It is well known that John Keats wrote all of his poetry in his teens and early twenties; he died at the age of twenty-five. Percy Bysshe Shelley, too, was dead before thirty, having written some of the most beautiful romantic poetry ever penned. Bobby Fischer was the world’s greatest chess player when still a teenager. And, to go to a ridiculous extreme, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was writing symphonies and sonatas at the age of five, while Alexander the Great had essentially conquered the entire civilized world, excepting only the Far East, before his death at the age of thirty-three (the often-repeated myth is that he died mainly of boredom).

While one would not dare to compare the achievements of Ira Levin with those of Mozart or Alexander, his works, though modest in number, have demonstrated a range and level of excellence that suggest the existence of that elusive quality we call genius.

Think of it: On his twenty-third birthday, he completed the manuscript of his first novel, A Kiss Before Dying, which was published in 1953 and received the Edgar Allan Poe Award from the Mystery Writers of America for the Best First Mystery of the Year. He was also drafted into the army that year, and the experience that followed helped him write the hugely successful stage adaptation of Mac Hyman’s book No Time for Sergeants, which was produced in 1955. By then, Levin was already writing teleplays for such prestigious television series as Lights Out and The U.S. Steel Hour. His next stage play, Critic’s Choice, starred Henry Fonda and became a smash hit in 1967, as did his musical, Drat! The Cat! Levin also wrote the lyrics for one of Barbra Streisand’s signature songs, “He Touched Me.”

In 1967, the still-young Levin published his second novel, Rosemary’s Baby, which was immensely popular with readers and critics alike and served as the basis for Roman Polanski’s megahit motion picture. The great success of the novel and the movie, Levin lamented in later years, helped pave the way for the boom in output of occult novels and films (so many of which were agonizingly pedestrian—or worse) that became so pervasive in the 1970s.

Other of Levin’s works continued the unbroken run of financial successes at the same time that they made such profound impacts on the reading and viewing public to become iconic. His novel (and the film made from it) The Stepford Wives added a phrase to the English language. His stage play Deathtrap (later filmed) remains one of the longest-running and most frequently produced crime dramas ever written.

In spite of the many and various extraordinary achievements Levin has produced during the past half-century, I still regard that first one, A Kiss Before Dying, as his crowning achievement. Just as is the case with Patricia Highsmith’s first book, Strangers on a Train, also written in her early twenties and quite possibly her finest moment, it is the enduring quality of the work itself that stands out—not the remarkable fact that it was written at an age when most people are struggling to find entry-level jobs.

A Kiss Before Dying is a superior illustration of the mechanics that can make a mystery so absorbing. The reader meets a charming young man and his lovely girlfriend, and Levin arranges it so that it is impossible not to like them, not to wish the best for them. And equally impossible not to be utterly shocked when that fine young man turns out to be a murdering sociopath. It would be difficult to say much more about this captivating story without ruining the suspense or tipping off the surprises, so I won’t. But I will say that, after yet another rereading, it again proves to be technically flawless.

There are many mystery novels that are perfectly precise puzzles, the elements of which mesh as smoothly as the works of an expensive wristwatch. They can be thoroughly enjoyed once and never thought about again, as if the reader had walked away satisfied after completing a jigsaw puzzle.

Levin achieves far more than a synchronized mechanism. He brings to life characters who have not sought to be involved in crime and murder (except, of course, the killer). They are essentially decent people caught up in a world not of their creation—aliens in a terrifying environment without a map or compass. Cornell Woolrich was the master of this type of literature, described so lucidly as the everyday gone wrong and so dexterously exploited by Alfred Hitchcock in so many of his films.

Suspense fiction is designed to terrify and, when done well, succeeds in a way that transcends the moment of actual reading. When the writer pulls it off, certain scenes explode into technicolor images in the mind and linger long after the book has been finished and returned to the shelf. And this terror is dramatically magnified when it involves people who did nothing deliberately to find themselves in positions of jeopardy.

A soldier, or a policeman, or a shark-hunter, have some expectation of danger in their lives. Children don’t. Nor do the charming and innocent young women who fall in love with the wrong sociopath, as Ira Levin allows them to do, in A Kiss Before Dying.

—Otto Penzler




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.

Finally his face relaxed. He put his arm around her and stroked her back. It was warm, or rather his hand was cold; all of him was cold, he discovered; his armpits were creeping with sweat and his legs were quivering the way they always did when things took a crazy turn and caught him helpless and unprepared. He lay still for a moment, waiting for the trembling to subside. With his free hand he drew the blanket up around her shoulders. “Crying isn’t going to do any good,” he told her gently.

Obediently, she tried to stop, catching her breath in long choking gasps. She rubbed her eyes with the worn binding of the blanket. “It’s just . . . the holding it in for so long. I’ve known for days . . . weeks. I didn’t want to say anything until I was sure . . .”

His hand on her back was warmer. “No mistake possible?” He spoke in a whisper, even though the house was empty.


“How far?”

“Two months almost.” She lifted her cheek from his chest, and in the dark he could sense her eyes on him. “What are we going to do?” she asked.

“You didn’t give the doctor your right name, did you?”

“No. He knew I was lying though. It was awful . . .”

“If your father ever finds out . . .”

She lowered her head again and repeated the question, speaking against his chest. “What are we going to do?” She waited for his answer.

He shifted his position a bit, partially to give emphasis to what he was about to say, and partially in the hope that it would encourage her to move, for her weight on his chest had become uncomfortable.

“Listen, Dorrie,” he said, “I know you want me to say we’ll get married right away—tomorrow. And I want to marry you. More than anything else in the world. I swear to God I do.” He paused, planning his words with care. Her body, curled against his, was motionless, listening. “But if we marry this way, me not even meeting your father first, and then a baby comes seven months later . . . You know what he’d do.”

“He couldn’t do anything,” she protested. “I’m over eighteen. Eighteen’s all you have to be out here. What could he do?”

“I’m not talking about an annulment or anything like that.”

“Then what? What do you mean?” she appealed.

“The money,” he said. “Dorrie, what kind of man is he? What did you tell me about him—him and his holy morals? Your mother makes a single slip; he finds out about it eight years later and divorces her, divorces her not caring about you and your sisters, not caring about her bad health. Well what do you think he would do to you? He’d forget you ever existed. You wouldn’t see a penny.”

“I don’t care,” she said earnestly. “Do you think I care?”

“But I do, Dorrie.” His hand began moving gently on her back again. “Not for me. I swear to God not for me. But for you. What will happen to us? We’ll both have to quit school; you for the baby, me to work. And what will I do?—another guy with two years’ college and no degree. What will I be? A clerk? Or an oiler in some textile mill or something?”

“It doesn’t matter . . .”

“It does! You don’t know how much it does. You’re only nineteen and you’ve had money all your life. You don’t know what it means not to have it. I do. We’d be at each other’s throats in a year.”

“No . . . no . . . we wouldn’t!”

“All right, we love each other so much we never argue. So where are we? In a furnished room with—with paper drapes? Eating spaghetti seven nights a week? If I saw you living that way and I knew it was my fault . . .”—he paused for an instant, then finished very softly—“. . . I’d take out insurance and jump in front of a car.”

She began sobbing again.

He closed his eyes and spoke dreamily, intoning the words in a sedative chant. “I had it planned so beautifully. I would have come to New York this summer and you would have introduced me to him. I could have gotten him to like me. You would have told me what he’s interested in, what he likes, what he dislikes—” He stopped short, then continued. “And after graduation we would have been married. Or even this summer. We could have come back here in September for our last two years. A little apartment of our own, right near the campus . . .”

She lifted her head from his chest. “What are you trying to do?” she begged. “Why are you saying these things?”

“I want you to see how beautiful, how wonderful, it could have been.”

“I see. Do you think I don’t see?” The sobs twisted her voice. “But I’m pregnant. I’m two months pregnant.” There was silence, as though unnoticed motors had suddenly stopped. “Are . . . are you trying to get out of it? To get away? Is that what you’re trying to do?”

“No! God no, Dorrie!” He grabbed her by the shoulders and pulled her up until her face was next to his. “No!”

“Then what are you doing to me! We have to get married now! We don’t have any choice!”

“We do have a choice, Dorrie,” he said.

He felt her body stiffen against his.

She gave a small terrified whisper—“No!”—and began shaking her head violently from side to side.

“Listen, Dorrie!” he pleaded, hands gripping her shoulders. “No operation. Nothing like that.” He caught her jaw in one hand, fingers pressing into her cheeks, holding her head rigid. “Listen!” He waited until the wildness of her breathing subsided. “There’s a guy on campus, Hermy Godsen. His uncle owns the drugstore on University and Thirty-Fourth. Hermy sells things. He could get some pills.”

He let go of her jaw. She was silent.

“Don’t you see, baby? We’ve got to try! It means so much!”

“Pills . . .” she said gropingly, as though it were a new word.

“We’ve got to try. It could be so wonderful.”

She shook her head in desperate confusion. “Oh God, I don’t know . . .”

He put his arms around her. “Baby, I love you. I wouldn’t let you take anything that might hurt you.”

She collapsed against him, the side of her head striking his shoulder. “I don’t know . . . I don’t know . . .”

He said, “It would be so wonderful . . .”—his hand caressing—“A little apartment of our own . . . no waiting for a damn landlady to go to the movies . . .”

Finally she said, “How . . . how do you know they would work? What if they didn’t work?”

He took a deep breath. “If they don’t work,”—he kissed her forehead, and her cheek, and the corner of her mouth—“If they don’t work we’ll get married right away and to hell with your father and Kingship Copper Incorporated. I swear we will, baby.”

He had discovered that she liked to be called ‘baby.’ When he called her ‘baby’ and held her in his arms he could get her to do practically anything. He had thought about it, and decided it had something to do with the coldness she felt towards her father.

He kept kissing her gently, talking to her with warm low words, and in a while she was calm and easy.

They shared a cigarette, Dorothy holding it first to his lips and then to hers, where the pink glow of each puff would momentarily touch the feathery blonde hair and the wide brown eyes.

She turned the burning end of the cigarette towards them and moved it around and around, back and forth, painting circles and lines of vivid orange in the darkness. “I bet you could hypnotize someone this way,” she said. Then she swung the cigarette slowly before his eyes. In its wan light her slim-fingered hand moved sinuously. “You are my slave,” she whispered, lips close to his ear. “You are my slave and completely in my power! You must obey my every bidding!” She was so cute he couldn’t help smiling.

When they finished the cigarette he looked at the luminous dial of his watch. Waving his hand before her, he intoned, “You must get dressed. You must get dressed because it is twenty past ten and you must be back at the dorm by eleven.”


HE WAS BORN IN Menasset, on the outskirts of Fall River, Massachusetts; the only child of a father who was an oiler in one of the Fall River textile mills and a mother who sometimes had to take in sewing when the money ran low. They were of English extraction with some French intermixed along the way, and they lived in a neighborhood populated largely by Portuguese. His father found no reason to be bothered by this, but his mother did. She was a bitter and unhappy woman who had married young, expecting her husband to make more of himself than a mere oiler.

At an early age he became conscious of his good looks. On Sundays guests would come and exclaim over him—the blondness of his hair, the clear blue of his eyes—but his father was always there, shaking his head admonishingly at the guests. His parents argued a great deal, usually over the time and money his mother devoted to dressing him.

Because his mother had never encouraged him to play with the children of the neighborhood, his first few days at school were an agony of insecurity. He was suddenly an anonymous member of a large group of boys, some of whom made fun of the perfection of his clothes and the obvious care he took to avoid the puddles in the schoolyard. One day, when he could bear it no longer, he went up to the ringleader of the hazers and spat on his shoes. The ensuing fight was brief but wild, and at the end of it he had the ringleader flat on his back and was kneeling on his chest, banging his head against the ground again and again. A teacher came running and broke up the fight. After that, everything was all right. Eventually he accepted the ringleader as one of his friends.

His marks in school were good, which made his mother glow and even won reluctant praise from his father. His marks became still better when he started sitting next to an unattractive but brilliant girl who was so beholden to him for some awkward cloakroom kisses that she neglected to cover her paper during examinations.

His schooldays were the happiest of his life; the girls liked him for his looks and his charm; the teachers liked him because he was polite and attentive, nodding when they stated important facts, smiling when they attempted feeble jokes; and to the boys he showed his dislike of both girls and teachers just enough so that they liked him too. At home, he was a god. His father finally gave in and joined his mother in deferent admiration.

When he started dating, it was with the girls from the better part of town. His parents argued again, over his allowance and the amount of money spent on his clothes. The arguments were short though, his father only sparring halfheartedly. His mother began to talk about his marrying a rich man’s daughter. She said it jokingly, of course, but she said it more than once.

He was president of his senior class in high school and was graduated with the third highest average and honors in mathematics and science. In the school yearbook he was named The Best Dancer, The Most Popular, and The Most Likely to Succeed. His parents gave a party for him, which was attended by many young people from the better part of town.

Two weeks later, he was drafted.

For the first few days of Basic Training, he coasted along on the glory he had left behind. But then reality rubbed off the insulation, and he found the impersonal authority of the Army to be a thousand times more degrading than his early schooldays had been. And here, if he went up to the sergeant and spat on his shoes, he’d probably spend the rest of his life in the stockade. He cursed the blind system which had dropped him into the infantry, where he was surrounded by coarse, comic-book-reading idiots. After a while he read comic-books too, but only because it was impossible to concentrate on the copy of Anna Karenina he had brought with him. He made friends with some of the men, buying them beers in the PX, and inventing obscene and fantastically funny biographies of all the officers. He was contemptuous of everything that had to be learned and everything that had to be done.

When he was shipped out of San Francisco, he vomited all the way across the Pacific, and he knew it was only partly from the lift and drop of the ship. He was sure he was going to be killed.

On an island still partially occupied by the Japanese, he became separated from the other members of his company and stood terrified in the midst of a silent jungle, desperately shifting this way and that, not knowing in which direction safety lay. A rifle slapped, sent a bullet keening past his ear. Jagged bird screams split the air. He dropped to his stomach and rolled under a bush, sick with the certainty that this was the moment of his death.

The bird sounds fluttered down into silence. He saw a gleam in a tree up ahead, and knew that that was where the sniper waited. He found himself inching forward under the bushes, dragging his rifle with one hand. His body was clammy cold and alive with sweat; his legs were trembling so badly that he was sure the Jap would hear the leaves rustling under them. The rifle weighed a ton.

Finally he was only twenty feet from the tree, and looking up, he could discern the figure crouched in it. He lifted his rifle; he aimed, and fired. The bird chorus shrieked. The tree remained motionless. Then suddenly a rifle dropped from it, and he saw the sniper slide clumsily down a vine and drop to the ground with his hands high in the air; a little yellow man grotesquely festooned with leaves and branches, his lips emitting a terrified sing-song chatter.

Keeping the rifle trained on the Jap, he stood up. The Jap was as scared as he was; the yellow face twitched wildly and the knees shivered; more scared, in fact, for the front of the Jap’s pants was dark with a spreading stain.

He watched the wretched figure with contempt. His own legs steadied. His sweating stopped. The rifle was weightless, like an extension of his arms, immobile, aimed at the trembling caricature of a man that confronted him. The Jap’s chatter had slowed to a tone of entreaty. The yellow-brown fingers made little begging motions in the air.

Quite slowly, he squeezed the trigger. He did not move with the recoil. Insensate to the kick of the butt in his shoulder, he watched attentively as a black-red hole blossomed and swelled in the chest of the Jap. The little man slid clawing to the jungle floor. Bird screams were like a handful of colored cards thrown into the air.

After looking at the slain enemy for a minute or so, he turned and walked away. His step was as easy and certain as when he had crossed the stage of the auditorium after accepting his diploma.

He received an honorable discharge in January of 1947, and left the Army with the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart, and the record of a shell fragment traced in a vein of thin scar tissue over his dextral ribs. Returning home, he found that his father had been killed in an automobile accident while he was overseas.

He was offered several jobs in Menasset, but rejected them as being of too little promise. His father’s insurance money was sufficient to support his mother and she was taking in sewing again besides, so after two months of drawing admiration from the townspeople and twenty dollars a week from the federal government, he decided to go to New York. His mother argued, but he was over twenty-one, if only by a few months, so he had his way. Some of the neighbors expressed surprise that he did not intend to go to college, especially when the government would pay for it. He felt, however, that college would only be an unnecessary stopover on the road to the success he was certain awaited him.

His first job in New York was in a publishing house, where the personnel manager assured him there was a fine future for the right man. Two weeks, however, was all he could take of the shipping room.

His next job was with a department store, where he was a salesclerk in the men’s wear department. The only reason he remained there an entire month was that he was able to buy his clothes on a twenty percent discount.

By the end of August, when he had been in New York five months and had had six jobs, he was again prey to the awful insecurity of being one among many rather than one alone; unadmired and with no tangible sign of success. He sat in his furnished room and devoted some time to serious self-analysis. If he had not found what he wanted in these six jobs, he decided, it was unlikely that he would find it in the next six. He took out his fountain pen and made what he considered to be a completely objective list of his qualities, abilities and talents.

In September, he enrolled in a dramatic school under the G.I. Bill. The instructors expressed great hopes for him at first; he was handsome, intelligent, and had a fine speaking voice, although the New England accent would have to be eliminated. He had great hopes too, at first. Then he discovered how much work and study were involved in becoming an actor. The exercises the instructors gave—“Look at this photograph and act out the emotions it brings to mind”—struck him as ridiculous, although the other students seemed to take them seriously. The only study to which he applied himself was diction; he had been dismayed to hear the word ‘accent’ used in relation to himself, having always thought of it as something someone else had.

On Sale
May 15, 2011
Page Count
288 pages