Ira Levin

A Kiss Before Dying

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A Kiss Before Dying Summary

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A Kiss Before Dying is a 1953 crime novel by American longform author, playwright, and songwriter Ira Levin. Considered a canonical American crime work, it follows ruthless sociopath Bud Corliss who manipulates and harms others in an attempt to rise from his lower-class roots into extreme wealth and prestige. When a woman who is in love with him becomes pregnant with their baby, he kills her and, later, her suspicious sister. The murder mystery is investigated by a college DJ named Gordon Gant, an unorthodox candidate for a detective. Using his investigative instincts, Gordon tracks down the two women’s killer, sees through his charm, and serves him justice. Winner of the 1954 Edgar Award for Best Novel, the novel has been adapted into two films, one in 1956, and another in 1991.

At the beginning of the novel, Bud Corliss returns from serving in World War II. He was stationed in the Pacific until he received an honorable discharge in 1947. Though he witnessed egregious crimes against humanity, Corliss doesn’t manifest any of the shell-shock signs of a typical soldier who has survived these experiences. In fact, during the war, he relished scenarios in which he exerted power over his adversaries. The moment in which he felt the most power was after wounding a Japanese sniper. Incapacitated and fearing for his life, the soldier wet his pants, prompting Corliss’s simultaneous feelings of disgust and superiority. This experience at war establishes his psychopathic tendencies and suggests that he is deeply broken beneath his calm and bright exterior.

After Corliss’s discharge, he goes back to the United States and starts college. There, he meets Dorothy Kingship and courts her because her father is a copper industry tycoon. He hopes to somehow use the connection to become wealthy himself but keeps their relationship a secret while he plots out his strategy. When Dorothy discloses that she is pregnant, Corliss panics. He does not intend to assume the responsibilities of a father, and fears that Dorothy’s conservative father will break ties with her and ruin his shot at becoming rich. He concocts an evil plan in which he convinces an oblivious Dorothy to write a note that, once taken out of context, could easily be interpreted as a suicide letter. He then stages her suicide by throwing her off the top of a building. Because Dorothy had followed his request to not tell anyone about their relationship, Corliss gets away with no ties to the “suicide.” He returns to his typical days living with his mother, who thinks her son is a model citizen.

For several months, Corliss stays out of the dating world, though he plots in the background to seduce Ellen Kingship, Dorothy’s sister. Eventually, he makes a move on her; she returns his interest, though not passionately. Ellen suspects that Dorothy’s death was not a suicide. Though this is at first an independent suspicion, she later connects it to Corliss and his reason for trying so hard to date her. When she approaches him, announcing that she knows he murdered Dorothy, he admits it, then kills her too. Having evaded justice for yet another murder, Corliss goes on to pursue the third Kingship sister, Marion. Seduced by his charm, Marion introduces him to her father. Corliss charms him as well, securing Marion’s engagement with her father’s blessing.

Meanwhile, Gordon Gant, a DJ who befriended Ellen while she tried to find out Dorothy’s real cause of death, resolves to connect the two tragedies, convinced that they were murdered. The moment he learns of Corliss, he grows extremely suspicious. One night, he breaks into the home of Corliss’s mother, where Corliss had been staying. He finds a document on which Corliss has plotted out his plan to seduce Marion to become wealthy. Before the wedding, when Corliss is gone, Gant travels to the Kingship estate. He shows the document to Marion and her father, both horrifying them and emboldening them to seek swift justice.

The novel culminates when Marion, Corliss, Gant, and Mr. Kingship travel to a Kingship copper factory. While Corliss stands above a huge basin of molten copper, they tell him that they know of his crimes and will seek justice. Corliss is overwhelmed with shock, having never before been outsmarted. He wets his pants, mirroring the Japanese sniper whom he killed in the Pacific, confirming his powerlessness and cowardice. Unable to stand up straight, he trips off the platform, falling into the molten copper. A Kiss Before Dying ends with a dramatic scene in which its sociopathic antagonist is delivered karmic justice, ironically symbolized by copper, the metal that he thought would bring him endless riches.