A genius for suspense
IRA LEVIN is, to me, the greatest writer of suspense. I'm fond of saying that he is the Alfred Hitchcock of suspense fiction. That isn't to say that Levin's style is like Hitchcock's, but that his name should be synonymous with suspense. Ira Levin, you see, has a genius for suspense. It's the only brand of suspense I know in fiction that is so palpable, you can feel it on your skin. It's the comic suspense that results from paranoia. Levin escalates the suspense in his books by keeping the proceedings as eerily ambiguous to the reader as they are to his characters. This dizzy seesawing between the real and the imagined creates the jittery, compelling mood of paranoia in his novels. "Ira Levin", said Stephen King once, "is the Swiss watchmaker of the suspense novel; in terms of plot, he makes what the rest of us do look like those five dollar watches you can buy in those discount drugstores."
A Kiss Before Dying, his first book, written when Levin was only 22, is a virtual textbook in the craft of suspense. It may be the only suspense book which makes good on clichés like "nail-biting" and "edge-of-the-seat-excitement". The book contains surprises that really surprise, and it's impervious to that really nasty, unworthy trick that some readers resort to turning to the last page to see whodunit. The revelation is neatly tucked away about one hundred pages into the story. Levin is best known for his masterful, influential supernatural thriller, Rosemary's Baby which Roman Polanski brought faithfully to the screen. Polanski was able to accurately tune into Levin's style: not to aim the camera squarely at the horror but rather letting the audience spot it for themselves off at the side of the screen. It is not simply the most perfectly crafted suspense-horror film, but one of the most perfectly crafted Hollywood films, period. Polanski gets all the spooky nuances and the comic undertone of Ira Levin's great horror novel just right. Rosemary's Baby isn't gross-out horror it is subtle, eerie, sly, witty, indirect, ironic. And it is constructed as neatly as an elegant house of cards; pull one plot twist, and everything comes tumbling down.
All of Levin's novels are a marvel of plotting: from This Perfect Day, The Stepford Wives, The Boys from Brazil and Sliver to his latest the long awaited sequel, Son of Rosemary. (Levin is also the author of the play "Deathtrap", the longest running thriller in Broadway history). Son of Rosemary was made for suspense addicts like myself who like to take their poison straight. It is vintage Ira Levin and though it may not match Rosemary's Baby, it still is, as contemporary thrillers go, in a class by itself. Rosemary wakes up from a coma after 27 years and finds out... well, it would be a shame to reveal even a page of the book's brilliantly crafted, utterly delicious plot with its breathtaking final twist. Levin slyly slips in several in-jokes and references to "RB" that only fans of the book will be quick to catch. That instrument of terrifying revelation from the original the Scrabble board plays a part here again but this time it is used as a comic set-piece Levin knows so fully well what our expectations would be, he reverses it. The word Rosemary is looking so hard to unravel using her Scrabble "Roast Mules" is a neat red herring. But red herring though it may be, none of the characters has solved it even by the end of the book. Levin leaves it to us to figure it out with this postscript: "The solution to the puzzle is honest and pleasing. Save your postage."
The sequel is a tantalising read shot through with those dark glints of humour that only Levin seems to know how to find. Levin's achievement is that such satire does not deflate the horror but enhances it. In The Stepford Wives, for instance, he uses wit and irony to tweak the horror. He takes that old wonderful "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" idea of duplicates and gives it a neat, contemporary feminist twist. In the tranquil town of Stepford there is no crime, no drugs... only the Stepford Wives who cook and clean with not a hair out of place. Katherine comes to the tranquil town of Stepford and finds that the women are all housewives and they take their role pretty seriously. It's not long before she sees her best friend change into a Stepford Wife and begins to fear that she too will change soon. "The Stepford Wife" has now entered into pop culture myth and refers to any woman who has changed into something horrible, into a zombie, into a toy thing for men to play with. In his brilliantly suggestive way, Levin leaves the conclusion open-ended. One of the pleasures of reading Levin is that his books are not wordy and overwritten: they are slim (no more than 250 pages) and the prose is stripped down, cinematic, precise. He showed us why suspense is superior to surprise. He made suspense an emotion you could actually experience. He turned it into art.
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