Category Archives: Patricia Highsmith

This Sweet Sickness – Patricia Highsmith

I am quite superstitious about the first book that I read of any year. However after possibly one of my ropiest reading years back in 2016, I was feeling it even more. (Ironically I started 2016 with a brilliant book which frankly puts my superstitious theories to pot, but anyway.) So the big question came of what I should start 2017 with. I wanted something that would hook me in, be well written, have characters that delighted me be they villainous or heroic and be a little dark. Basically I wanted a book that infuses all of the elements which give me a good old book tingle.

So after much mulling I settled on Patricia Highsmith’s This Sweet Sickness, after all none other than Marieke Hardy had recommended it on The ABC Book Show (alas not personally over a cocktail or two) selling it in all its twisted glory. Plus I read and absolutely bloody loved Deep Water in 2015 and was smitten, before also loving Highsmith’s very different but also fantastic Carol – which I am ashamed to say I have not reviewed from last year, 2016 really was a pesky pest. So with rather a lot of pressure I opened up the first page…

9780349006284

Virago Modern Classics, paperback, 1960 (2016 edition), fiction, 320 pages, bought by myself for myself

It was jealousy that kept David from sleeping, drove him from a tussled bed out of the dark and silent boarding house to walk the streets.
He had so longed lived with his jealousy, however, that the usual images and words, with their direct and obvious impact on the heart, no longer came to the surface of his mind. It was now just the Situation. The Situation was the way it was and had been for nearly two years.  No use bothering with details. The Situation was like a rock, say a five-pound rock, that he carried around his chest day and night. The evenings and the nights, when he wasn’t working, were a little bit worse that the daytime, that was all.

Seriously, how could anyone fail to be hooked from the opening paragraphs of This Sweet Sickness? Without meaning to come over all English Professor on you all, let us dissect that opener. A man, David, is overcome with jealousy. Instantly I am intrigued, jealousy being a fascinating and wicked subject and emotion. He lives in a dark and silent boarding house, gothic setting instantly ticked. Then comes ‘the Situation’ but what on earth is it, what on earth is going on? You simply have to read more don’t you, you can’t not. Well, I couldn’t anyway.

What transpires after this opening, and it transpires quickly so this is by no means a spoiler, is that David is in love with Annabelle. Annabelle is a woman who merely a few years ago, back in their home town, he had pondered asking to marry – and many people believed would have said yes – that is until another man asked and she said yes to him. However, despite the fact that they have a child together, it is David’s belief that Annabelle will leave her husband and their true love will soon run smooth, okay so there might be a slightly annoying child involved, but he would still have Annabelle wouldn’t he?

Yes, this is when you realise that David might be slightly unhinged, further confirmed when you realise that despite his pretty decent job, David is living economically in that slightly gothic boarding house because he has bought (and decorated, just to add another level of madness) a house for himself and Annabelle for when she sees sense and leaves everything for him. Yes, David is deluded and possibly a bit bonkers. Gripping stuff right?

The leaves fell, brown and yellow, and others turned red and clung for weeks longer. It was the first of November, and still Annabelle has not answered his letter. Should he send her another letter, or had she gotten into trouble with one letter and was Gerald now pouncing on all the mail that came in?

What I loved so much about This Sweet Sickness is also what I loved about Deep Water, though delivered just as originally whilst very differently… The way she goes inside the mind of someone who has quite possibly lost theirs. Not only is it a fascinating portrait into the mind of someone quite sick (she referred to many of her creations as her beloved little psychopaths) yet she does so in a way that humanises them and some of the deeds that they may or may not commit. As we follow David, slightly ironically following Annabelle, we feel for him even though we know what he is doing is creepy and even when he goes too far.

In a small part this is also because Annabelle quite frankly is a bit of a psycho-tease. As the novel went on I found her wet and insipid responses quite pathetic and questioned if actually it was adding some spice to her and her husband’s relationships. Anyway, I digress. If I was her I would have told him to absolutely do one, but that wouldn’t have made for novel, more a piece of flash fiction. Yet the main reason for us feeling for David when we probably (ha, definitely) shouldn’t, is that Highsmith somehow manages to make us empathise with him. After all haven’t we readers all fallen for someone who we thought loved us back but didn’t? Erm, yes. Haven’t we all become slightly besotted with someone we shouldn’t? Erm, yes. Haven’t we all deluded ourselves that the one doesn’t know they are the one and so we buy a house we don’t live in but decorate how we imagine the one would want us to even though they don’t know about it and might not want to live in their too? Erm… just David then. But in other ways many of the things David has done we have done too, just slightly less extremely and I think that is where Highsmith’s true power lies.

She can also write a downright gripping and addictive plot. Chapters just long enough. As sense of impending dread that gets larger as you read on. Twists coming when you least expect them. And the ear, or eye, for a great main character who is flawed, nuts and yet you can’t get enough of and even sometimes like. She also knows how to add extra meat to the bone with a thriller, the plot and the main character aren’t enough and in This Sweet Sickness that comes in the form of an interesting friendship between David, his colleague Wes and Effie, a slightly lost young woman who I loved and felt deeply sorry for, which also becomes a slightly warped and strange love triangle all of its own.

I cannot recommend This Sweet Sickness enough; it is a thriller that should be up there with so many of the infamous classics it is quite remiss that it is not. As with Deep Water, which I also urge you to read, it has all the elements of a gripping thriller whilst being a fascinating insight into the darker parts of the human psyche. I know we get into the heads of some really warped characters in crime fiction right now, but never in the way or on the same level as we do in a Highsmith, all the more eerie as we sometimes empathise with it. Simply writing this review has made me want to run and take another of the shelves.

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Filed under Books of 2017, Patricia Highsmith, Review, Virago Books, Virago Modern Classics

Deep Water – Patricia Highsmith

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.

9780349006260

Virago Modern Classics, paperback, 1957 (2015 edition), fiction, 340 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

“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.

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Filed under Books of 2015, Patricia Highsmith, Review, Virago Modern Classics