Category Archives: Levin Ira

2021: It’s a Wrap

Book-wise, this was a great year, and here are the highlights.

Best of 2021:

A Kiss Before Dying: Ira Levin

One of the most enthralling, creepiest crime books I’ve read, this is the story of Bud, a psychopath who returns from WWII a hero, but finds that the normal route to success (hard work, starter jobs, college) is not for him. A stint as a gigolo for an older, wealthy widow is just the ticket, but it comes with an expiration date. Bud calculates that the next move is a wealthy, young bride, so he enrolls in a college known as “a country club for the children of the Midwestern wealthy.” The plan works well until the girl gets pregnant….

Nightmare Alley: William Gresham.

This gritty noir story follows the rise and fall of Stanton Carlisle, a carnie worker who moves up in his trade from mind reader, to medium to reverend. Along the way, he manipulates, steals, defrauds and murders. His weakness is sex and women. He uses women, but eventually stumbles into the life of a woman who’s nastier than he is. There’s a film version of this just released.

The Beggar’s Pawn: John L’Heureux

A well-to-do older married couple allow their lives to be invaded by a manipulative, resentful would-be writer, Reginald Parker. The couple, a professor and his independently wealthy wife, have warning signals about Reginald, but they are ‘nice’ people, burdened with their own sense of privilege and constantly under siege, financially, from their 3 awful children.

The Paper Lovers: Gerard Woodward

Arnold Proctor, a professor and poet, is happily married, or at least thinks he is, when he finds that he’s attracted to one of his wife’s friends, Vera. Arnold becomes fascinated with Vera–yes there’s a strong sexual attraction, but she’s religious and somehow, Arnold can’t align Vera with her strong religious beliefs. A sexual advance leads to almost instant coupling. Again Arnold can’t align Vera’s actions with her beliefs. This is adultery, right? Doesn’t she feel guilty? Arnold finds out the hard way (not that we feel sorry for him) that transgressions for the religious have a certain trajectory.

Wives and Daughters: Elizabeth Gaskell

A wonderful novel which traces the life of Molly Gibson whose father, a country doctor, marries a silly, selfish, vain widow. Dr. Gibson has no idea what he’s dealing with when he marries the snobby, ridiculous shallow widow, Mrs. Kirkpatrick, but Molly doesn’t know what she’s dealing with when her capricious step-sister, Cynthia, arrives.

Oh William!: Elizabeth Strout

This is the story of a man in crisis who calls upon his ex-wife to cushion him from life. Lucy Barton and William have been divorced for some time when the story begins, but she still cares about William. By the time I finished this, I wanted to shake Lucy Barton and ask her why William’s needs were sooo important–even to the exclusion of her own. The tale is told by Lucy who divorced William for his (as it turns out) numerous affairs. Lucy may have left the marriage behind but not apparently the need to ‘care’ about William. When William’s much younger wife dumps William (shock!) Lucy becomes re-involved with William. Their relationship is an example of Amy Witting’s ‘the diners and the dinners,’ and we all know who the diner is here.

The Bachelors: Muriel Spark.

This very funny story strings together several London bachelors who become involved, in various ways, with the sticky tendrils of a forgery and fraud case which involves a male medium who has murderous designs on his pregnant girlfriend.

The Barsetshire Series: Anthony Trollope.

Six novels. The Warden, Barchester Towers, Doctor Thorne, Framley Parsonage, The Small House at Allington, The Last Chronicle of Barset. The series follows the lives and tribulations of various characters who live in Barsetshire. With countless subplots, Trollope delves into the squabbles between clergymen, ecclesiastical hierarchy, love affairs, the vagaries of marriage, the power of the press, snobbery, debt. Barchester Towers has long been a great favourite, but The Last Chronicle of Barset comes a close second. Throughout the series, Trollope reveals petty behaviour, but towards the end of the series, petty behaviour yields to much more serious transgressions. But Trollope oversees all with his customary good humour and generosity.

Hoke Moseley series: Charles Willeford

This is a 4-book, hardboiled crime series: Miami Blues, New Hope for the Dead, Sideswipe, The Way We Die Now, Miami homicide detective, Hoke Moseley isn’t anyone’s idea of a hero. When the series opens, he’s divorced, living in a flop house hotel, wearing leisure suits, beginning to go bald, has no teeth and is struggling to make ends meet. By the end of the series, his career is looking up and he has both of his teenage daughters after his Ex took off to California. Now he has a few stray hairs on his head, still wears those outdated leisure suits, and still has no teeth. Actually Hoke’s false teeth play a role in the books. Hoke’s career moves through the influx of Cuban refugees, Affirmative Action, gentrification and, horror of horrors, laws concerning public smoking. Hoke’s laconic attitude belies his natural born-killer instinct and his peculiar way of looking at the world lightens the darkness.

Leisureville: Andrew Blechman

Not the best book I read in 2021, but definitely the most interesting non-fiction book of the year. The book is written by Andrew Blechman who goes to the world’s largest retirement community, The Villages in Florida after a neighbour moves there. While the author didn’t approve of the ethics (if that’s the right word) of the place, I was fascinated. Why would people choose to move to a community with age restrictions? What’s it like? What are the benefits? What are the drawbacks?

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A Kiss Before Dying: Ira Levin (1953)

One of the most enthralling, creepiest books I have ever read, Ira Levin’s A Kiss Before Dying is a chilling journey into the mind of psychopath, Bud Corliss, a good-looking, decorated WWII veteran who returns to his hometown as a hero but then finds that the normal, difficult slow paths to money and success are ‘beneath’ him. Starter jobs aren’t good enough and college “would only be an unnecessary stopover on the road to the success he was certain awaited him.” He moves to New York, but the world does not shower him with the recognition he thinks he deserves. 5 months and 6 jobs later there’s a period of “serious self-analysis,” (Levin’s ironic touch adds to this tale) with the result that Bud “took out his fountain pen and made what he considered to be a completely objective list of his qualities, abilities and talents.” He finds a rich, older widow and easily slips into the role of gigolo, but the widow has a series of toyboys all with a short shelf life. Following that experience, Bud plots to snare a wealthy young bride and moves to Blue River, Iowa to attend Stoddard College: “a country club for the children of the Midwestern wealthy.”

It looks as though Bud’s plans will be successful when he finds the insecure, needy Dorothy Kingship, the daughter of a wealthy copper manufacturer. But there’s a hiccup in Bud’s plans when Dorothy announces she’s pregnant. Bud knows that Dorothy’s father is strict and that in light of the unexpected pregnancy, Dorothy will most likely be cut off from the family coffers. Bud decides his choices are: 1) to marry Dorothy, lose the fortune and end up working menial jobs with a wife and baby dragging him down, or 2) ditch Dorothy in which case he’s sure Mr Kingship will hunt him down and ensure Bud’s ruin. Then Bud decides that there’s a 3rd scenario: first come pills to bring on an abortion, but they don’t work (“why hadn’t the goddamn pills killed the girl?“) His anger at Dorothy builds as Bud sees his plans thwarted, and in his narcassistic mind, it’s all her “fault.” His justifications pile on like speed dominoes–after all he hadn’t really wanted sex… it was just to “seal” the deal. From this line of thought, murder is the next step. …

Bud is a list-maker, so throughout the novel he faithfully, coldly and calculatingly lists his plans with pros and cons, and it’s through these plans we see the twisted logic of the psychopathic mind. After Dorothy’s murder, which is ruled as a suicide due to Bud’s cold-blooded staging, Bud is at first thrilled by his own brilliance and the “flawless success of his plans. He should be walking on air, smiling at strangers, toasting himself with secret Champagne. Instead there was this dull, leaden letdown feeling. He couldn’t understand it.” Of course the letdown feeling is caused by the slowly dawning realization that without Dorothy, he’s back at square one. And after all that hard work too. “All that planning hadn’t advanced him in the slightest.”

Bud returns home to his doting, indulgent mother to lick his wounds. He works another boring job, but internally he’s advancing to the next stage of the game. Of course this all takes ‘study’ and preparation. Although the Dorothy ‘episode’ may have been a failure, he turns it into a brilliant success; he can’t help himself–it’s the self-love kicking in, and so he keeps a collection of his twisted plans. His depression begins to evaporate:

Towards the middle July, however, he began to slough off his dejection. He still had the newspaper clips about Dorothy’s death locked in the small grey strongbox he kept in his bedroom closet. He began taking them out once in a while, skimming through them smiling at the officious certainty of Chief of Police Eldon Chesser and the half-baked theorizing of Annabelle Koch. He dug up his old library card, had it renewed and began withdrawing books regularly; Pearson’s Studies in Murder, Bolitho’s Murder for Profit, volumes in the Regional Murder series. He read about Landru, Smith, Pritchard, Crippen. Men who had failed where he had succeeded. Of course it was only the failures whose stories got written–God knows how many successful ones there were. Still it was flattering to consider how many had failed. Until now, he had always thought of what happened at the Municpal building as Dorie’s death. Now he began to think of it as Dorie’s murder. Sometimes, when he had lain in bed and read several accounts in one of the books, the enormous daring of what he had done would overwhelm him. He would get up and look at himself in the mirror over the dresser. I got away with murder, he would think. Once he whispered it aloud. “I got away with murder!” So what if he wasn’t rich yet. Hell he was only 24.

When Dorothy’s guilt-ridden sister, Ellen suspects that Dorothy was murdered, she quietly begins an investigation. She uncovers a few male suspects and the wolfish behaviour of these young men sound alarm bells when in reality the danger is closer than she can imagine. Perhaps the greatest character here is DJ Gordon Gant, a man who meets Ellen and can’t forget her. His dogged persistence eventually costs him his job.  Although Gant has nothing to gain, and at great personal cost, he insists on giving Dorothy’s father, a man who has abdicated his parental role, a wake-up call. Bearers of bad news are typically seen as more trouble than the threat they report. Sometimes we want to bury our heads  in the sand and we must be dragged into reality kicking and screaming. While this is certainly true in this tale, it’s also true that the average person cannot conceive of the nature of Evil. An average person cannot imagine how a psychopath thinks, and this is one of the reasons this book is so powerful–we are privy to Bud’s twisted thinking, his objectification of other human beings and his monumental self-worship.

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