How can it be? I almost got to meet him this past summer. For health reasons he did not attend The Annual Mystery Writers’ Festival but he did judge all of the presented plays. I was looking forward to meeting this man, who like most of my generation I met through the movies. I consider myself lucky that I went back to read the books. And I'm honored that even as he he felt less healthy he cared enough about our genre to continue to help create new magic. Preservation of the mystery screenplay was as important to him as it is important to Jon and myself. The fact that he was willing to put his name in the mix in such an interactive way says a lot about a man who was often disappointed by what Hollywood did with his own work.
For he had a voice from the beginning. Plot twists and observations on society that became genuine gems when presented with his singular and sometimes sincere but often comical cynicism. The best case in point for this may be THE STEPFORD WIVES. Presented by Hollywood two times, Levin’s novel never got the screenplay it deserved. In fact, the second adaptation was in reality closer to his book than the first. For The Stepford Wives was surely a commentary on fear. The mundane fear of the average suburbanite for the then new movement called “Woman’s Lib”. How strange it was to sit down and read this book for the first time in 2003. I saw all the elements I’ve come to recognize in my own generation of books. There was “tuckerizing” (where characters are given the names of people from the mystery community and friends who’ve come to matter to a writer). There were shout outs (to bookstores, restaurants, books), and there was this gem of a plot, which is the part that Hollywood tried to get. And did in both movies but the book is where it’s at for me. Written not to be a big book, but to tell a story he wanted to tell.
I still remember reading Sandra Prowell’s novel WHEN WALLFLOWERS DIE. I couldn’t scope out the end for the very fact I could not imagine anyone leaving ROSEMARY’S BABY with only 35 pages to go. Talk about your red herrings. Levin had the narrative skills to take his reader from the beginning to the end. If you start one of his novels, you finish it. He was hailed by Anthony Boucher and he won the MWA award for best first novel with A KISS BEFORE DYING. It is a book that stands up today 50 years later as one of the best first novels ever written. it should be on the reading list of anyone who wants to read and/or write in the mystery genre. ROSEMARY was his second big success and Roman Polanski nailed the premise. I should know, I watch this movie annually and continue to find new minutia in the performances of the actors every time (especially the late John Cassavettes and Ruth Gordon). A chillier movie was never filmed.
THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL caused controversy. Using real life evil (Mendele) to entertain the masses was very controversial in the early seventies. I say Levin brought the horror of the Holocaust home to a generation and made us realize that the evil that was then will continue until we stop it. We haven’t learned the lesson yet but Levin did his best.
The list of great work that started as books and/or screenplays & moved into movies continues. NO TIME FOR SEARGEANTS, DEATH TRAP, and yes, SLIVER. SLIVER the book was chilling to read and whenever I have an opportunity to see the movie I do. Guilty pleasure that doesn’t stand up to the book though it may be, it is certainly Sharon Stone’s best movie and the relationship between her and Billy Baldwin in the film captures the feel of the book more viscerally than any other film adaptation of Levin’s work.
So I’m sad today. Sad we’ll see no more from this great voice. But I’m glad he left the work behind to read and view again and again. Both in screenplay and novel form Levin always had a story to tell living up to that “best first” from MWA and making everything he did “lasting”. And that last project? The Annual Mystery Writers' Festival? I know Zev Buffman won't let him down.