Though not many writers would care to contend for the honor except on the front lines of the best-sellers list, Ira Levin may well be America’s finest hack writer. For one thing, he’s reliable. His latest thriller, Sliver, is as successful a page turner as his first, A Kiss Before Dying, 38 years ago. In between he’s produced two books that have become pop-culture myths, Rosemary’s Baby and The Stepford Wives. He has been imitated by other hacks, but he never repeats himself. He has also avoided the temptation of those hacks who decide they’ll show their true colors by trying to produce the Great American Novel. Ira Levin never gets serious, he just gets better.
The concept behind Sliver couldn’t be simpler: electronic voyeurism. A bright, handsome, rich psychotic has wired an entire high rise on Manhattan’s Upper East Side so that he can view his tenants on a secret closed-circuit TV network. He comes to take a special interest in our heroine, Kay Norris, a bright, beautiful, well-to-do editor whose life is missing only one ingredient: love. The voyeur begins to supply what she’s been missing, and the story shifts gears from a simple high-tech thriller to something closer to romance.
At this point, halfway through the book, Sliver becomes so irresistible that it will have you phoning in sick. You know that after the damsel has gotten sufficiently deep in distress there will be a conventional gothic denouement. But Levin is able to make you care about his characters along the way. He zeroes in on a familiar psychological quirk — in Rosemary’s Baby it was the fear and physical ordeal of pregnancy — and finds a way to keep intensifying that feeling.
There isn’t a lot of gore in a Levin novel. The whole of Sliver wouldn’t provide enough gross-out effects to fill a paragraph of Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho. The villain of Sliver is a multiple murderer but not a serial killer — which is to say he’s got sound reasons for the crimes he commits. For all his glamour, he is a plausible person, like you or me or Kay Norris. And when Kay starts to get involved in his voyeuristic games, the effect is all the more unnerving because Levin has made us succumb to the temptation with her. Of course it’s wrong, but wouldn’t you watch what your neighbors were up to if you had the chance? Readers so virtuous that they’ve never eavesdropped on a phone conversation or read someone else’s mail may not find Levin’s fantasy especially compelling, but for the rest of us, Sliver offers a large slice of delicious, double-chocolate escapist trash. A