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by L.R. Dorn
William Morrow, July 2023
ISBN: 0063205092

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Jordan De Carlo is an impossibly handsome, erudite, talented, and intellectual theatre major at the University of California, Santa Barbara. A budding director, he has just completed his senior project: a production of Eugene O'Neill's 1924 play DESIRE UNDER THE ELMS, starring his girlfriend, theatre 5major Victoria Berne. She plays Abbie, who, in O'Neill's words, is "is pretty but marred by... rather gross sensuality." De Carlo and Berne should be celebrating, because the UCSB community has judged DESIRE UNDER THE ELMS a stellar breakout performance of a soon-to-be-famous alumnus.

De Carlo indeed gains fame in the immediate aftermath of the production: as the suspected murderer of his wealthy parents, who were brutally killed with multiple stab wounds while at home. In crime-writing duo L.R. Dorn's novel WITH A KISS WE DIE, De Carlo decamps to Mexico with Berne, then offers to return and face arrest if famous crime podcaster and wholesome suburban mom Ryanna Raines will feature De Carlo and Berne in her podcast THE RAINES REPORT. To do that, she'll have to live with them in the murder house, now, at least temporarily, De Carlo's property. Of course, she agrees. She's not sure she can trust De Carlo. This reviewer wasn't either. After all, he is clearly drawn to O'Neill's antihero Eben Cabot, whose "defiant, dark eyes remind one of a wild animal's in captivity. Each day is a cage in which he finds himself trapped but inwardly unsubdued." Even so, what wouldn't Ryanna Raines do for such a scoop?

WITH A KISS WE DIE is written in the style of a true-crime podcast, which is, to say, like a radio play. It purports to examine how digital-age reporting on true crime influences criminal cases. This is also the objective of several other recently published crime novels. To this tradition, Dorn adds nothing new. De Carlo and Berne are insufferable people: theatre kids who never grew up and haven't really become artists or critical thinkers, either. De Carlo sees himself as a Bergmanesque Lothario director for whom dating one's lead actress is not a conflict of interest. Like Bergman's ingenues, Berne has more going on inside her brain than De Carlo or the media assume. She risks appearing to be, in Dorn's wording, a "Jezebel" to De Carlo's "Svengali." They each have secrets they haven't told each other, of course, and when they're separated in jail, their united front predictably falls apart. The plot twists veer into melodrama, with the theatre kids behaving like the outsized risk-takers and idealists they've always wanted to play.

If all this seems derived from an earlier era of theatre history and a vision of California theatre education in which #metoo never happened, it is. The most unrealistic aspect of the plot is that De Carlo's department allowed him to produce DESIRE UNDER THE ELMS and apparently thought that 99-year-old play is revolutionary. That said, WITH A KISS WE DIE is well-paced, never confusing, and invites the reader to imagine its characters' melodramatic acting on the stage of the real world. For a beach read, it will do.

Rebecca Nesvet is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay and co-edits Reviewing the Evidence.

Reviewed by Rebecca Nesvet, July 2023

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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