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A Kiss Before Dying Paperback – April, 2003
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"Rebound" by Kwame Alexander
Don't miss best-selling author Kwame Alexander's "Rebound," a new companion novel to his Newbery Award-winner, "The Crossover,"" illustrated with striking graphic novel panels. Pre-order today
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Levin was a successful writer by anyone's standards. ROSEMARY'S BABY, STEPFORD WIVES, AND BOYS FROM BRAZIL were all best-sellers made into hit movies. Most of his hits were written in the 1960's and 70's, when he was in his 30's and 40's.
KISS is his first novel and he wrote it in 1953, when he was only 24 years old. It won an Edgar for Best First Novel and I see why. It's a brilliantly executed thriller. But what I find amazing is not the quality of his writing, but that a very young man from a sheltered background could have conceived of Bud Corliss, one of the most memorable characters ever.
He traces Corliss's life as the only child in a working-class family in New England. The son of warring parents, his childhood is a deadly combination of over-indulgence and cold rejection. Did that create this charming, manipulative man who "like an animal, watches people to find out what they reward him for or punish" ? What part did the war play in his personality? Did combat teach him that killing is an easy and effective way to get what you want? Would he have figured it out anyway?
Willie Sutton robbed banks "because that's where the money is." But when you're young and handsome and personable, the money is frequently found in the prospects of young, gullible women with rich parents. "There's no law against going after a rich girl, is there?" Corliss asks innocently. I hope not, because he's after several of them and if one plan doesn't work he ends the "romance" decisively and moves on
This book keeps the reader off balance. Mercurial, manipulative people do that to you. As a chameleon changes color, some people change names, addresses, jobs, and even personalities as it suits them. We like to think we're shrewd enough not to be conned, but are we? While we're wondering what conditions create a monster, we also have to wonder what conditions create a victim. Innocence? Arrogance? Neediness?
Levin did have experience that helped him frame his plot. Like Corliss, he was an Easterner who attended a mid-western college. "Stoddard University" in Iowa is based on the Des Moines, Iowa campus of Drake University where Levin spent two years. It's a wonderfully realistic look at college life in the 1950's - placid and innocent on the surface, but with the emotional drama that goes with being young in any time, in any culture. Unlike college students a generation later, Bud and Dorothy don't have the luxury of "letting it all hang out." They may not follow all the rules, but they must keep their infractions secret at all costs. And sometimes the cost is death.
The greatest irony of all is watching Bud Corliss with his adoring mother as they contemplate his future as the favored son-in-law of a wealthy industrialist. Even knowing what you know about him, it's impossible not to be touched by the sweetness of their relationship. If Dorothy's father had treated his daughters with as much love, would they have been wiser women? Would tragedy have been averted? Or are some things just meant to be?
Even if you don't care for thrillers, you should not fail to read this book. It's a classic and one of the most chilling, fascinating books you'll ever read.
The novel is written in Levin's signature detached prose, which works perfectly for this noir-influenced, Hitchcock-like story - we find ourselves inside the heads of multiple characters, providing motive and believability to a plotline that comes dangerously close to being a potboiler. There's plenty of suspense and tension, the characters are likable and identifiable, and the twist (yes, there's a twist) is actually surprising (at least for readers who haven't seen one of the film versions of the novel!). Best of all, everything comes together satisfactorily in the end - and endings are the most difficult for books like this one.
Highly recommended - the 1956 movie version (with Robert Wagner and Joanne Woodward) isn't bad, either; it's just not as good as the book. It was an easy read on Kindle - if you like it, try Levin's other novels (`This Perfect Day,' `Rosemary's Baby,' `The Stepford Wives,' or `Boys from Brazil').
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Can't wait to read more by this author! The suspense will kill you!