Ira Levin Essay - Critical Essays


Ira Levin’s career offers worthwhile insights into how an author can successfully utilize tropes and conventions of the mystery genre without producing a single major work that can be labeled a straightforward mystery. Beginning his career in the early post-World War II era, Levin was a pioneer in a trend that continued well into the twenty-first century—one of blending genres and experimenting with conventions not only in highbrow literature but also in popular fiction. With few exceptions, Levin’s most successful works, both with critics and readers, have been skillfully constructed hybrids of at least two genres, with one always being the mystery story, his favorite form of reading as a boy. This combining of genres is evident in his most popular works, Rosemary’s Baby and The Stepford Wives.

Levin repeatedly explored the fate of the outsider in a corrupt, inimical environment. The outsiders in Rosemary’s Baby and The Stepford Wives are the young wives who are new to the community. In A Kiss Before Dying, both the killer and Marion, the young woman who ultimately escapes him, are quirky and do not fit comfortably into society, and the hero of Levin’s dystopian science-fiction novel, This Perfect Day, is called Chip in a futuristic society where everybody else has one of eight approved names followed by a number, and he has eyes of two contrasting colors in a world where defects and differences have been eliminated.

Rosemary’s Baby

Rosemary’s Baby, Levin’s phenomenal best seller of the 1960’s, is essentially a story of supernatural horror and the occult: a coven of devil worshipers conjure up the Prince of Darkness to impregnate a young housewife, Rosemary Woodhouse, who has just moved into the gloomy apartment house in New York where the cult operates. However, the plot format that Levin employs is taken directly from classic mystery and detective fiction: The protagonist becomes convinced that something sinister is afoot after the death of a young neighbor. As her suspicions grow, she pursues a pathway of investigation typical to mystery tales, involving eavesdropping, unraveling secret identities, solving anagrams, conducting historical research, and perceiving and analyzing subtle clues such as recurring scents and sounds and slight changes in characters’ behavior. Absolutely nothing overtly supernatural is depicted until the very last chapter, which is almost a parody of the final scene of a mystery novel: Rosemary moves through a secret passageway in a closet into a parlor full of all the surviving characters where points of the plot are rehashed and the truth is revealed.

The Stepford Wives

The Stepford Wives employs a similar formula, but this time Levin combines science fiction with mystery conventions. In The Stepford Wives, a heroine very similar to Rosemary moves with her husband to the placid suburb of Stepford, where a misogynist scientist is replacing the women of the town with slavish android replicas. Here, though, Levin seems to play with the conventions of the cozy mystery format such as that used...

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