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Sometime during the 1970s, I fell in love with Robert Ludlum novels and waited anxiously for each new one to come out in paperback editions. Complex plots with an evil cabal at the center, which, free from government or moral constraints, plotted to take over the world. And were usually taken down by Mr Everyman. Or Mr Everyman and friends.

Of course, in those days I never actually believed there was such a conspiracy at the heart of our civilization, but it was fun to see them all destroyed anyway. And Ludlum was good at it. (Where is he now when we need someone to take down the Koch conspiracy?)

So good that when The Boys From Brazil was published I thought I was reading more Ludlum. But no, this riveting tale was from Ira Levin. By then, I had already devoured Levin's The Stepford Wives and Rosemary's Baby.

Somewhere along the line I picked up a hardback copy of my favorite Levin novel, This Perfect Day. Lesser known than his other works, it is a dystopian tale of a repressive tyranny and a man's attempt free himself.  I have since learned that he was an Ayn Rand fan who actually met the lady. Perhaps that is why the creators of the world portrayed in TPD included Karl Marx and Jesus Christ.

But I read it for the escapism and the adventure, not caring much about its political underpinnings. There was a Cold War on and it was okay to think of Marx and Stalin in the same breath. The point that Mr. Levin and Ms. Rand both missed was that tyranny is not a political ideology, but rather a clumsy and generally inefficient tactic of governance that has been practiced at all points of the political spectrum including the far right.

Ideology aside, I found the methods of control portrayed in the novel interesting, from the drug therapy to the means of computer tracking all citizens. There have been times over the years that I have wondered if the creators of anti-depressants and GPS devices had read Ira Levin.

But for all of Levin's work that I did read, there was one that until now totally escaped me, his first novel, A Kiss Before Dying. I don't know how I missed this one, there were two movies made of it (I watched the original on Amazon last night) and it was a winner of the Edgar Allen Poe Award from the Mystery Writers of America for Best New Novel in 1954. But Amazon put the ebook up for sale and at $1.99 there was no way I was going to pass it up.

Since it was such a short book, although a riveting read, I decided to include another short mystery/thriller, White Lies, also a debut novel. Written by Jeremy Bates, it too only cost me $1.99 on sale at Amazon. The fact that the current price is now $10.09 must surely be the result of marketing.

The New York Times published an article in Saturday's paper about the big business that online book reviews have become. If you have ever felt let down by the customer reviews on sites like Amazon this may help explain why.

When I bought White Lies, it seemed that a story of a young teacher moving to Leavenworth, WA to begin a new job and a new life two years after the death of her soul mate, who picks up a hitchhiker during a dark and stormy night would be a good read. Turns out the hitchhiker is not a psychopath (lucky teacher) but a fellow teacher at her new school. She doesn't learn this until the following Monday, after she had lied to the hitchhiker, telling him that she had a cabin at Lake Wenatchee and that he would have to get out of her car. In the rain.

I guess the point is that one white lie will lead to another and eventually ensnare the teller in a web too tight and too strong to break out of.  It was awful. Contrived. Unbelievable. The characters, including the heroine's dog, a boxer named Bandit, were cartoons. She leaves her dog alone in the house for a week-end. I don't know any real person who would do that, or any real dog that could do that. But clearly, this writer had never owned a dog or knew anything about caring for a dog. Or a woman.

Publishers Weekly, in a masterpiece of understatement, concludes:

Thin characters and improbable sequences weaken the overall impact.
Do not believe the positive reviews. Please, because life really is too short for all of the good books that are out there, do not waste your time on this stinker.


First edition cover
OTOH, time spent on A Kiss Before Dying is not wasted. Ira Levin, at the age of 23, completed the manuscript of this, his first novel. The plotting is taut, the suspense strong and the surprise midway through is total. His ability to sketch a character with a minimum of description is marvelous to read:
SEATED AT HER DESK, Miss Richardson stretched out her right hand in a gesture she considered quite graceful and squinted at the gold bracelet that constricted the plumpness of her wrist. It was definitely too young looking for her mother, she decided. She would get something else for mother and keep the bracelet for herself.
Now, Miss Richardson is a walk-on character in a single scene, with few speaking moments, but she lives in your mind with three sentences. You know her. You know what kind of person she is. Ira Levin does this with all of his characters. He doesn't describe them so much as he breathes life into them and allows them to show you who they are.

The story opens at Stoddard College, where Dorothy is a student who becomes pregnant by her drop dead gorgeous boyfriend who narrates the first third of the book. Her wealthy father is a morally demanding man who would never forgive her for having a child out of wedlock or within seven months of marriage. Her lover is penniless but highly ambitious and tries to abort the pregnancy with pills that a friend, whose relative owns a pharmacy, provided.

This all takes place in the late forties, early fifties, long before Roe v Wade, and portrays well the desperation and fear that an unexpected pregnancy created. In our current political climate, the desperation no longer seems quite so dated.

Speaking of dated, yes, they smoked cigarettes, but after the war everyone did. Cigarette manufacturers used to provide them free in rations that were distributed to the troops during WWII. And women matched their shoes to their purses, which were then matched up to their outfits.

Since the pills don't work (no kidding) and an early marriage would cause her father to disinherit her, destroying the only reason he was dating her, the boyfriend tried to get her to unwittingly take arsenic that he stole from the chemistry lab on campus and put in gelatin capsules.

When that didn't work either (she lied about taking them) he moves on to more direct methods to rid himself of the burden he was sure would destroy his future.

The plot is so well twisted that to reveal any more would be to take the fun out of it. If you like mysteries and would enjoy a little time travel back to post-war America, this is the next book you should read.

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Originally posted to Readers and Book Lovers on Mon Aug 27, 2012 at 05:00 PM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Thanks for the recommendation (11+ / 0-)

    I'll look for it at the library tomorrow. I love this diary series - I find so many good books here.

    I've finally caught up my book journal - I had a stack of books to return to the library and needed to enter them into the journal so I wouldn't forget.  I finally got through a Jo Nesbo book and found I really enjoyed this one.  I tried him before and just didn't care for it.  This one - Headhunters - makes me want to go back and try The Snowman again.    I also found a new series by Jaden Terrell. The first book in the series, Racing the Devil, was very interesting and I look forward to more.  

    After reading the diary about Charlie Chan a couple of weeks ago, I ordered a book of five novels from Amazon.  It's a used book in decent shape and I got it for a decent price.  I'm enjoying it so far - I am quite sure I have never read any of Derr Biggers Chan novels before.

  •  Superb novel (10+ / 0-)

    I read this after Rosemary's Baby, and I think it is a fabulous psychological thriller as well as a great murder/suspense story. I recommend the first movie made of it with Robert Wagner, Jeffrey Hunter and a very young Joanne Woodward.

    "Well Clarice, have the lambs stopped screaming?"

    by buffie on Mon Aug 27, 2012 at 05:31:51 PM PDT

  •  I ordered two new books (12+ / 0-)

    that will come in a week or so:

    The Sunless Sea by Perry that is a Hester and Monk book
    and Beautiful Mystery by Louise Penny.

    I am still reading Allingham and ordered more.

    There was a bit of usage of a bad word and premise in #4, Police at the Funeral, ala Sayers and others writing back so long ago that bothered me, but not too many so far.  Sigh...

    Martin Walker's books are not overly exciting, but I still enjoy the atmosphere of southern France.  I am learning about truffles, now.  

    Join us at Bookflurries-Bookchat on Wednesday nights 8:00 PM EST

    by cfk on Mon Aug 27, 2012 at 05:33:37 PM PDT

  •  I enjoyed Ludlum and Forsyth (8+ / 0-)

    when I wanted a suspenseful page-turner, but began to tire of them as they became too formulaic.

    Levin, on the other hand, seemed to be a real hoot:  I thought Stepford Wives was hilarious, and likewise The Boys of Brazil, which I thought was preposterous.  The single premise of the cloned Hitler boys just could not carry the story.  

    A Kiss Before Dying, however, sounds like a thriller I could entertain, and I like the fact that it takes place in the 40's and 50's and is not written as a retroactive piece trying to get the period just right.  So, yes, I will get it from the library and let you know what I think.  I suspect I will enjoy it tremendously.

    Am currently reading Skippy Dies in preparation for bookgirl's review tomorrow.

    Thank you for another interesting diary, Susan, and yes, like you, I wasn't paying too much attention to the "exceptionalism" portrayed by those early thrillers we enjoyed.  

    Just waitin' around for the new Amy Winehouse album

    by jarbyus on Mon Aug 27, 2012 at 05:35:45 PM PDT

    •  For just a plain old fashioned thriller, A Kiss (8+ / 0-)

      Before Dying is it. And because he was writing it during that era, he got all of the details right. I remember some of those ashtrays!

      I liked Boys From Brazil although reading the synopsis today it does seem laughable, certainly improbable.

      Ken Follett was another who was writing some pretty good thrillers back then before he learned about architecture and stuff.

      "I cannot live without books" -- Thomas Jefferson, 1815

      by Susan Grigsby on Mon Aug 27, 2012 at 05:45:17 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  I loved those, and also Robert Bloch's books (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Susan from 29

        I went on a wonderful binge of Levin and Bloch when I was in my teens. There was something almost subversive-feeling about reading them, the protagonists were so much creepier, in their normal-seeming ways, than others in popular books of the day. (Bloch wrote Psycho and The Couch.) That binge also included Thomas Tryon, with Harvest Home and his book about the evil twin (can't remember the title, maybe The Other?).

        Thanks for another great diary!

        "Out on the edge you see all kinds of things you can't see from the center." Kurt Vonnegut

        by scilicet on Tue Aug 28, 2012 at 09:07:20 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  Yeah, The Other. That was good stuff. Creepy (0+ / 0-)

          indeed and I doubt I would enjoy it as much today as I did in the 70s. I was fearless in my twenties.

          I also remember a book about a puppet that took over the ventriloquist, but I can't remember who wrote it or its name.

          "I cannot live without books" -- Thomas Jefferson, 1815

          by Susan Grigsby on Tue Aug 28, 2012 at 10:10:01 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

  •  Ooh, I read that! (9+ / 0-)

    A Kiss Before Dying, that is.  To this day, when I think about it, I find it very disturbing.  I also found The Talented Mr. Ripley disturbing--read that one after I saw the film.

    Right now I'm reading An Empty Death, and I have the usual complaint about the villain.  Villains do their villany (murder, in this case), and no one EVER catches them!  Their planned villany never runs into any snags.  No one ever thinks anything is suspicious.  It beggars belief, which considerably tempers my enjoyment of what I'm reading.

    Other than that, this is an interesting book, because the murder mystery is set in WWII London and as if a madman on the loose weren't bad enough, there are bombs all over the place.

    "Religion is what keeps the poor from murdering the rich."--Napoleon

    by Diana in NoVa on Mon Aug 27, 2012 at 05:48:13 PM PDT

  •  Laugh if you will; I admire/love Rosemary's Baby. (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Susan from 29, scilicet

    I find it just about perfectly crafted, amusing, and (as you noted) grounded by the kind of rich detail that makes A Kiss Before Dying so real.

    Levin's other novels never pleased me as much (and the sequel to Rosemary pleased least of all), but Kiss came closest.

    •  the sequel to Rosemary's Baby, omg (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Susan from 29

      I don't think I have ever been more appalled--and not for good reasons--at a book's ending. I ranted about it so much that now, if I'm grousing about the plot of something my son and I are watching on TV (e.g. the end of season one of The Killing), he'll bring up that #1 worse ending ever. Or if I'm whining about wrapping up something I'm writing, he'll suggest that ending.

      "Out on the edge you see all kinds of things you can't see from the center." Kurt Vonnegut

      by scilicet on Tue Aug 28, 2012 at 09:16:40 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  I must have read the sequel, but I can't remember (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        a thing about it.

        This is interesting from Wikipedia:

        Rosemary's Baby is a 1967 best-selling horror novel by Ira Levin, his second published book. It sold over 4 million copies "making it the top bestselling horror novel of the 1960s." [1] Major elements of the story were inspired by the publicity surrounding the Church of Satan of Anton LaVey which had been founded in 1966.[2] LaVey was used as publicity for the film adaptation, attending the San Francisco premiere.[3]
        It is interesting because the Church of Satan has long been coupled with Ayn Rand, as recently as Monday here on Daily Kos in a diary by Troutfishing.

        "I cannot live without books" -- Thomas Jefferson, 1815

        by Susan Grigsby on Tue Aug 28, 2012 at 10:16:45 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  MAJOR SPOILER for both Rosemary's Baby & sequel (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Susan from 29

          Don't read on if you're ever going to read either book because the ending of the sequel is so heinous it upends Rosemary's Baby's plot, too.

          It turns out that... it was ALL a dream! ALL of it. Not just the events in the sequel, but everything that happened after the couple moved into the apartment building in Rosemary's Baby, too! All of the wonderful supernatural plot of the first book, poofed away by the lucicrous ending of the mediocre sequel!

          "Out on the edge you see all kinds of things you can't see from the center." Kurt Vonnegut

          by scilicet on Tue Aug 28, 2012 at 10:52:59 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

          •  um, make that a "ludicrous" ending (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            Susan from 29

            Unless a ludicrous twist in a book about Lucifer could maybe be called "lucicrous"?

            "Out on the edge you see all kinds of things you can't see from the center." Kurt Vonnegut

            by scilicet on Tue Aug 28, 2012 at 10:55:35 AM PDT

            [ Parent ]

            •  When you consider how he felt about the (1+ / 0-)
              Recommended by:

              whole movement toward Satanist literature and film that came after Rosemary's Baby, that ending is not really a surprise:

              Mr. Levin was less pleased, however, at the tide of popular Satanism his work appeared to unleash.

              “I feel guilty that ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ led to ‘The Exorcist,’ ‘The Omen,’” he told The Los Angeles Times in 2002. “A whole generation has been exposed, has more belief in Satan. I don’t believe in Satan. And I feel that the strong fundamentalism we have would not be as strong if there hadn’t been so many of these books.”

              “Of course,” Mr. Levin added, “I didn’t send back any of the royalty checks.”

              From the NYT obit.

              "I cannot live without books" -- Thomas Jefferson, 1815

              by Susan Grigsby on Tue Aug 28, 2012 at 11:26:03 AM PDT

              [ Parent ]

              •  Susan, did you see the diary here (1+ / 0-)
                Recommended by:
                Susan from 29

                about how Anton LaVey took his whole Satanic Bible stuff directly from Ayn Rand?  It was only published a few days ago, and apparently this is NOT news:  he deliberately crafted the Church of Satan around what Rand wrote.

                I didn't hotlist it or anything so it's not easily accessible to me, but yeah -- I couldn't make this shit up.

                Paul Ryan is directly worshiping at the Church of Satan whenever he references Ayn Rand.

                Even the Jesuits know it.

                To make the argument that the media has a left- or right-wing, or a liberal or a conservative bias, is like asking if the problem with Al-Qaeda is do they use too much oil in their hummus. Al Franken

                by Youffraita on Tue Aug 28, 2012 at 04:21:47 PM PDT

                [ Parent ]

                •  Yes I did, and I thought I had included a link to (1+ / 0-)
                  Recommended by:

                  it in my response. It was a recommended diary by Troutfishing called The Paul Ryan Ayn Rand Satanism Connection Made Simple.

                  I found the incomplete circle from Ira Levin to Ayn Rand to Rosemary's Baby to Church of Satan to Paul Ryan to be as bizarre as everything else that Ayn Rand was involved in. Even peripherally.

                  "I cannot live without books" -- Thomas Jefferson, 1815

                  by Susan Grigsby on Tue Aug 28, 2012 at 06:02:37 PM PDT

                  [ Parent ]

                  •  I bow to your expertise (1+ / 0-)
                    Recommended by:
                    Susan from 29
                    I found the incomplete circle from Ira Levin to Ayn Rand to Rosemary's Baby to Church of Satan to Paul Ryan to be as bizarre as everything else that Ayn Rand was involved in. Even peripherally.
                    b/c I sure don't know how to express that.

                    To make the argument that the media has a left- or right-wing, or a liberal or a conservative bias, is like asking if the problem with Al-Qaeda is do they use too much oil in their hummus. Al Franken

                    by Youffraita on Tue Aug 28, 2012 at 06:55:50 PM PDT

                    [ Parent ]

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