A Kiss Before Dying

October 2023: A Kiss Before Dying has just been named to Time Magazine's list of the 100 Best Mystery and Thriller Books of All Time

Written at age 22, A Kiss Before Dying's Faberge-egg plotting and inventive narrative structuring have secured its place among the top crime and suspense novels to date. With its unparalleled psychological portrait of a smooth-as-glass, collegiate sociopath anti-hero, Levin helped to cultivate one of many enduring cultural tropes — the "clean-cut serial killer."

On its publication in 1953, the New York Times' Anthony Boucher was left almost literally speechless, writing: “The hardest thing for a reviewer to write, believably and persuasively, is an all-out, no-reservations rave; and that's the problem that faces me this week as the result, of all things, of the first novel of a 23-year-old writer.” He praised Kiss's “architecturally perfect plot,” adding “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.”

The book's publisher, Simon & Schuster, proclaimed it “One of the finest suspense stories ever written.”

Indeed, the novel contains one wholly-unique narrative turn which critics agree rivals any which came before it. The novel also dramatically shifts its entire POV not once, but three times, and contains myriad twists and devices that astound to this day. (Magpie Murders author Anthony Horowitz described it in 2022 as having one of the greatest clues in a murder mystery.”)

As Levin's 1972 The Stepford Wives would also do, Kiss set its terror in broad daylight – on leafy college campuses and the environs of summertime "Blue River" Iowa – marking one of the many sub-genres ("daylight horror") Levin would help cultivate. He used his two years of matriculation at Des Moine's Drake University as a guide in modeling fictional "Blue River," and it's equally-fictitional "Stoddard University."

Levin was drafted into the US Army just after finishing the book – he had to be granted military leave to attend the awards dinner in New York where he received his "Best First Novel" Edgar Award. He wrote about these unusual circumstances in a later humorous New York Times piece.


(Above) Draft page with working title

(Above) Levin (L) receiving "Best First Novel" Edgar Award for "A Kiss Before Dying"

(Above) Letter from President Eisenhower to Levin

(Above) Levin Noir

(Above) © Marvel

Click here to read an excerpt from "A Kiss Before Dying"