Patricia Highsmith is one of those authors who I have been meaning to read for years and years. (I think I said I would write a list of such authors I have meant to get to a while back, oops maybe in the next week or so.) Recently Virago sent me a set of some of her reissued novels and so I was left with the delightful choice of which one to read first. I settled on Deep Water as my first choice after authors Stella Duffy, Sarah Hilary and Jill Dawson all waxed lyrical on how marvellous they both thought it was, and goodness me were they right.
“Vic didn’t dance, but not for the reasons that most men who don’t dance give to themselves. He didn’t dance simply because his wife liked to dance.” As Deep Water opens we are thrown straight into a very middle class evening of wine dancing and merriment at a house in the suburbs of Little Wesley. Vic Van Allen is observing the merriment rather than joining in with it, specifically watching over his wife Melinda who spends most of the evening dancing, rather indiscreetly, with her latest male admirer Ralph. We soon learn that this has become a bit of a regular, rather annoying, aspect to the marriage of Vic and Melinda, whilst for a while now Vic has let Melinda have small infatuations they have started to become too public.
In a rash moment of annoyance, the otherwise well liked and thought of Vic manages to whisper in Ralph’s ear ‘If I really don’t like somebody, I kill him …You remember Malcolm McRae, don’t you?’ It transpires Ralph does, and Vic’s ruse, which is of course untrue, works as Ralph backs off, even though the whole town soon starts talking about it. Yet within weeks Melinda has become very close with pianist Charley, new to town, someone who doesn’t seem to scare of so easily and within days Vic’s fiction becomes much more of a reality.
It was astonishing to Vic how quickly the story travelled, how interested everybody was in it – especially people who didn’t know him well – and how nobody lofted a finger or a telephone to tell the police about it. There were, of course, the people who knew him and Melinda very well, or fairly well, knew why he had told the story, and found it simply amusing. But there were people who didn’t know him or Melinda, didn’t know anything about them except by hearsay, who had probably pulled long faces on being told the story, and who seemed to take the attitude that he deserved to be hauled in by the police, whether it was true or not. Vic deduced that from some of the looks he got when he walked down the main street of the town.
It is very difficult to write about Deep Water without giving too much away. I think it is fair to say we know from the off that things are not going to go well for Vic and Melinda and that there is going to be a murder (or maybe more) ahead. This would frankly be well trodden ground if it wasn’t for two things, Vic himself and Vic and Melinda’s marriage, which I think compel this into being a thriller rather unlike any that I have read before.
Firstly we have Vic’s character which is possibly one of the most interesting insights into someone as they go down a dark road to disastrous actions. From the start we are made to sympathise with Vic. He is a man who leads a decent harmless life. He has wealth via an allowance (which admittedly we never know much about) and so has set up his own small press publishing lesser known works which he goes in as and when he feels like, yet employing one of the locals full time. Outside the hobby of his business he likes to spend the day reading, contemplating, oh and breeding snails and letting bed bugs use his blood while he learns about them. Yes, a slight oddness lies within Vic but as we watch the way his wife carries on around him, we forgive him, forget it or just think it’s adorably geeky.
How many of us would allow their partner/husband/wife bring back different beau’s every few months, they are clearly having sex with, and invite them for dinner and indeed let them stay till the small hours dancing together in front of you willing you to go to bed in the former spare room which is now yours? No, me neither. Yet Vic doesn’t seem bothered, despite their having one child he remains asexual in many ways not responding to other local wives flirtations, if anything it seems some kind of penance or game he just deals with. Well, until he reaches his limits, which to be fair we all would. (Note – if you think I have given everything away, not a chance, we aren’t past page 50 yet!)
Vic said in a light, joking tone, ‘It’s too bad I’m married to you, isn’t it? I might have a chance with you if I were a total stranger and met you out of the blue. I’d have money, not be too bad looking, with lots of interesting things to talk about -’
‘Like what? Snails and bed bugs?’ She was dressing to go out with Charly that afternoon, fastening around her waist a belt that Vic had given her, tying round her neck a purple and yellow scarf that Vic had chosen carefully and bought for her.
‘You used to think snails were interesting and that a lot of other things were interesting, until your brain went to atrophy.’
‘Thanks. I like my brain fine and you can have yours.’
The other mystery, aside from the murders of the past and any that may follow, that we become fascinated is how on earth Vic and Melinda’s marriage ended up in such a horrific state. Unlike War of the Roses (one of my favourite films) or Gone Girl (Gillian Flynn is a huge Highsmith fan and discusses Deep Water in this edition) this is not a case of marital misunderstandings turning to malice or two deeply unlikeable people marrying each other and causing the other hell, this is the case of one woman flaunting her affairs, toying with her husband and getting away with it. Melinda is all the more fascinating as whilst we never get inside her head, which I admit I would have liked to, we watch spiral out of control as she loses control of the situation she has created. It is fascinating as we watch these two characters unfold and even more fascinating as we start to side with one of them. I will leave it at that.
I loved, if that is the right word, my first foray into Highsmith so much. Deep Water is one of the most entertaining, snarky, camply dark, vicious and twisted psychological thrillers I have read. It is also one of the most unusual as the reader watches a sociopath come to the fore from their normally meek mild mannered self… and we egg him on and like him, even understanding him oddly, the whole time. It is a fascinating insight into the mind of a killer, if this is a prime example of what Highsmith fondly described as “my psychopath heroes”, I can’t wait to meet the rest. If you haven’t read Deep Water then honestly, erm, dive in – you are in for an absolute treat.
Who else has read Deep Water and what did you make of it? Which other Highsmith novels have you read and would you recommend? I have already got my next Highsmith lined up and ready to read. I was going to read The Talented Mr Ripley next but the film, which is brilliant, is still rooted in my head so I am going to save that a while. I cannot wait for This Sweet Sickeness to come out next year in print, as Marieke Hardy brought it to ABC’s The Book Club and it sounded brilliant. I have decided that I am going to give Carol/The Price of Salt a whirl next, especially as the film with (the always brilliant) Cate Blanchet is coming out soon. I genuinely can’t wait.