This year marks the first in a very long time that I did not show Rosemary’s Baby to my film class on Halloween. If you know the film you probably consider this a good idea: what is the man thinking to show a bunch of 14-year-olds a movie about a young wife who gets raped by Satan and impregnated with his spawn? (They ended up screaming delightedly over The Sixth Sense instead.)
But Rosemary’s Baby is that rare thing – a movie that is nearly as good as its source material. And that is because author Ira Levin, a playwright and screenwriter as well as a novelist, had such a visual eye for scenes and an ear for dialogue that director Roman Polanski could easily lift whole sections from the book and fit them into his screenplay. (It also doesn’t hurt that the casting is perfect.) In this respect, Levin reminds me of Dashiell Hammett, who had a similar eye and ear. Only alcohol prevented Dash from having the Hollywood career he should have had. Read the fiction of both men, and you’ll understand why four of Hammett’s five novels, and five of Levin’s seven, have been filmed, some more than once.
Both men experimented with genre. If all of Hammett’s novels falls solidly into the mystery genre, they’re all different, too, moving from pulp noir to fantastical whodunit, from P.I. classic to political thriller, and capping it all off with screwball comedy/mystery. In one way or another, they’re all terrific.
Although Levin bounced from genre to genre in his seven novels, I still consider him a mystery writer. This idea is supported by his work as a playwright. Deathtrap (1978) may not have the same super punch of Shaffer’s Sleuth, but it is great, twisty fun. Veronica’s Room (1974) is perverse and creepy as hell! And I still remember Bing Crosby’s memorable turn in the TV-movie version of Dr. Cook’s Garden. But it’s the way Levin shapes a book that keeps bringing you back to the idea of a mystery: the slow unfolding of a hidden truth, the periodic twists that cosmically shift a character’s life and his/her relationship with even the closest friend or family member, the fearless willingness to upend our beliefs in a person or a situation.
Not all of Levin’s novels are great, but they’re all readable. In fact, the last two are rotten (Sliver), bordering on execrable (Son of Rosemary)! In 2002, Levin would blame Rosemary’s Baby for the long run of books and films that revolve around witchcraft and devil children:
“I feel guilty that Rosemary’s Baby led to The Exorcist (and) The Omen. 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, I didn’t send back any of the royalty checks.”
Nor did he fail to cash in by creating a sequel. It’s bad enough that Son of Rosemary never convinces (there’s an actual elevator that takes you straight down to Hell!), but in the worst twist of his career, Levin essentially negates all of Rosemary’s Baby. Very bad – yet verylucrative – career move.
The novels The Stepford Wives (1972) and The Boys from Brazil (1976) were popular and even considered prescient for their time. Neither has dated particularly well, although what seemed incredible in Brazil regarding cloning is pretty spot on today when one reads about experiments in edited genetics and the like. Even at the time, though, I couldn’t buy the concept of Stepford, with its cartoonishly extreme method of resolving women’s demand for respect and equality. Subsequent adaptations and sequels have neutered the consequences of the original and border on the cartoonish. (The Stepford Husbands, The Stepford Children! Revenge of the Stepford Wives!!!) Yet the term “Stepford wife” has literally become a part of our lexicon, and many of these women attend Trump rallies on a regular basis.
For me, the novel-writing greatness of Ira Levin rests with his first three books. His second book, Rosemary’s Baby (1967), is the source of his fame. Its brilliance is in the way it strips a gothic horror novel of all of its gothic trappings (well, nearly all; the literal architecture remains) and grounds it in the normalcy of Upper West Side young married life. If the villain is ultimately Satan, his representatives on earth are the least likely suspects. And that is a huge part of the joy for me here: Rosemary’s Baby is, in many ways, fashioned like a classic murder mystery as our poor heroine slowly realizes the danger that lurks around – and perhaps even inside– her! Levin even includes actual puzzles, stunning reversals and surprise betrayals to aid or confront Rosemary on her perilous journey, all culminating in a twist ending! It’s an immensely re-readable book, and on a second or third pass, you should try focusing on Levin’s expertise on only his second novel at crafting a dynamite plot.
Levin’s third novel and first foray into science fiction is This Perfect Day (1970). It’s a dystopian novel, and it’s so eminently readable that you can almost forgive it for not standing up to its more literary contemporaries, 1984 and Brave New World. It’s more fun than either of those fine books, and while modern hard core sci-fi fans might reject its benevolent technocracy as derivative . . . well, look at when it was written! 2001: A Space Odyssey had come out only two years before and dealt, in part with both the positive and negative aspects of our increasing interrelationship with technology. This Perfect Day is non-ambiguous: computers are tools for dominance, for the dissemination of untruths, and for the physical and mental neutralization of the human race. How prescient is that today? And there’s no denying that Levin relates the journey of his hero Li RM35M4419 (aka “Chip) with the same verve of a mystery adventure. Chip encounters shocking reversals of fortune, surprise traitors, a nearly impossible romance, all leading to a surprise unmasking of a super villain. Along the way, the novel does a nice job of constantly reinventing itself until the ultimate, world-changing end.
This is primarily a mystery blog, and all I’ve been doing is hinting at mysteries. So let’s get to the real meat, shall we? Ira Levin’s premiere novel, A Kiss Before Dying (1953) was published when he was 24, just before he entered the army, and earned him an Edgar Award for Best First Novel. The award is most deserved because, right from the start of his career, Levin wields an expert hand over the twists and turns of the plot and characters. If this is the training ground for Rosemary’s Baby, right off the bat Levin proves himself a pro.
The book was filmed twice, but let me warn you that you do not want to watch either film! Well, don’t watch the first one till after you have read the book. (And then don’t ever watch the second one because it stinks.) A Kiss Before Dying works best as a book, in the way certain Christies work. In books like – The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and A Murder Is Announced, the author takes advantage of her medium to trick the reader. And in books like Three-Act Tragedy and After the Funeral, the trick works best when it is seen through the mind rather than with the eye.
All of this is true about Kiss; thus, it behooves me to skirt around the plot and tricks so that you can approach it with no expectations, other than the high praise I heap on it. The current edition contains a praiseworthy introduction from no less than Otto Penzler, who puts my feelings into perfect focus and offers up enough of a hint to satisfy any reader:
“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.”
After finding the book in a used bookstore and rereading it myself, I have to concur with Mr. Penzler. I enjoyed it even more than the last time and have to admire and envy, as Penzler does, Levin’s relative youth and inexperience when he penned it. Within one novel, the author plays with numerous sub-genres: the inverted mystery, the whodunit, the HIBK thriller, all stripped of their nostalgic trappings (for the time) and given a modern feel. And yet, reading it as a full-blown adult this time around, I had to smile at the nostalgic innocence of early 50’s college life playing background to the nasty events that engulf the characters. It’s suspenseful and witty, and you could do a lot worse this holiday season than to curl up with A Kiss Before Dying and a frosty mug of – hopefully, unpoisoned – egg nog!