Deep Water is another top-notch novel from Patricia Highsmith, probably on a par with the best of the Ripley series. The book was published in 1957, two years after The Talented Mr Ripley with which it shares a psychological focus – more specifically, the motives that drive certain individuals to behave in sinister ways. Once again, Highsmith encourages us to side with an outwardly respectable man who secretly harbours psychopathic tendencies. The way she does this is so clever; she knows exactly how her readers will respond to each of her characters, creating a situation where we feel sympathy for a murderer and contempt for the woman who has made his life so difficult.
Vic and Melinda Van Allen have been married for around eight years. They live with their six-year-old daughter, Trixie, in the suburban community of Little Wesley where Vic owns a small publishing business dedicated to the production of high-quality, specialist books. The Van Allens’ marriage has been toxic for some years; there is no real love left in the relationship, only jealousy and sniping whenever the couple are together. (Vic no longer shares a bedroom with Melinda, choosing instead to spend his nights in a separate room on the other side of the house.)
Right from the start, Highsmith lays the blame for this situation firmly at Melinda’s feet. For the past three or four years, Melinda has been seeing a steady sequence of men, flaunting her conquests in front of Vic, inviting them home in the evenings for copious drinks and some intimate dancing. (Vic rarely dances himself; in fact, he actively abstains from the activity, simply because Melinda enjoys it so much.) These soirees often extend late into the night, prompting Vic to stay up as long as possible to keep an eye on Melinda, spoiling the cosy atmosphere she is aiming to create.
Whenever the Van Allens are invited to the home of one of their neighbours, Melinda usually succeeds in wangling an invitation for her latest man – a fact that Vic finds particularly infuriating, although he is scrupulous in concealing his true feelings from their mutual friends. In this scene, Joel Nash, Melinda’s current beau, is accompanying Melinda and Vic to a get-together at the Mellers’ house (Horace and Mary Meller are the Van Allens’ closest friends).
Horace had tactfully refrained from mentioning Mr Joel Nash. Hadn’t said Joel was nice, or welcome, or asked anything about him or bothered with any of the banalities. Melinda had manoeuvred Joel’s invitation to the party. Vic had heard her on the telephone with Mary Meller the day before yesterday; ‘…Well, not exactly a guest of ours, but we feel responsible for him because he doesn’t know many people in town…Oh, thanks, Mary! I didn’t think you’d mind having an extra man, and such a handsome one, too…’ As if anyone could pry Melinda away from him with a crowbar. (pp. 4-5)
Every few months or so, Melinda seems to have a new love interest in her life, each one as foolish and ineffectual as the last. In truth, it is their idiotic nature that Vic really takes issue with – plus Melinda makes no secret of her fascination with these men by parading them all over town.
It was not that he objected to Melinda’s having affairs with other men per se, Vic told himself whenever he looked at Ralph Gosden, it was that she picked such idiotic, spineless characters and that she let it leak out all over the town by inviting her lovers to parties at their friends’ houses and by being seen with them at the bar of the Lord Chesterfield, which was really the only bar in town. (p. 17)
On the surface, Vic appears to be a quiet, respectable chap, highly regarded in the town of Little Wesley and well-liked by virtually everyone who knows him. He has time for people, taking care to stop and listen to their preoccupations and concerns – in short, he seems a generous, kind-heartened man, willing to support others wherever possible. His interests are somewhat insular and nerdy, activities such as breeding snails, studying bedbugs, gardening and stargazing; but then again, there’s nothing particularly unusual about this, they’re just innocent hobbies, things he can do without any interference from Melinda.
Vic’s real pride and joy is his daughter, Trixie. In fact, he probably spends more time with Trixie than Melinda, playing with the young girl and giving her extra tuition for school – she’s a very bright kid, remarkably well adjusted considering the state of her parents’ marriage. Melinda, for her part, pays little attention to Trixie, choosing instead to spend her afternoons and evenings in the company of her boyfriends, drinking and dancing and generally making a fool of herself.
As a consequence of all this, the Van Allens’ friends – especially their closest allies, the Mellers and the Cowans – feel very sympathetic towards Vic, but less so towards Melinda. They can see all too clearly what Vic has to endure when he is out with Melinda; in fact, it’s a wonder that Vic puts up with it at all, especially considering how long it’s been going on.
The fact that Melinda had been carrying on like this for more than three years gave Vic the reputation in Little Wesley of having a saintlike patience and forbearance, which in turn flattered Vic’s ego. Vic knew that Horace and Phil Cowan and everybody else who knew the situation – which was nearly everybody – considered him odd for enduring it, but Vic didn’t mind at all being considered odd. In fact, he was proud of it in a country in which most people aimed at being exactly like everybody else. (p. 18)
Quite near the beginning of the novel, Vic decides that he’s had enough of the likes of Joel Nash and Ralph Gosden for a while, so he decides to invent a story to scare them away. Vic tells both men, albeit on separate occasions, that he killed one of Melinda’s former lovers, an advertising exec named Malcolm McRae. (A few months earlier, McRae was found dead in his Manhattan apartment, murdered by an unknown assailant yet to be identified.) Both Joel and Ralph are visibly unnerved by Vic’s disclosures, and so they back away from Melinda – but Little Wesley is a small place, and word of Vic’s alleged involvement in the McRae case soon starts to spread. Those who know Vic well don’t believe a word of it. They can see exactly what Vic is doing, trying to frighten his wife’s lovers by hinting that he isn’t the mild-mannered doormat they seem to take him for. Nevertheless, there are other residents of Little Wesley who are less familiar with Vic, people like Don Wilson for example – recently arrived in town and a little outside of the Van Allens’ circle of friends – who are more suspicious of Vic, open to the idea that he might have killed in cold blood.
He thought that a few people there tonight really believed that he had killed Malcolm McRae – the people who knew him least. That was what Mary had tried to tell him. If Mary hadn’t known him so well, or thought she knew him so well, she might be one of the people who suspected him, he thought. She had as much as said it that night of the party. ‘You’re like somebody waiting very patiently and one day – you’ll do something.’ He remembered the exact words, and how he had smiled at their mildness. Yes, all these years he had played a game of seeming calm and indifferent to whatever Melinda did. He had deliberately hidden everything he felt – and in those months of her first affair he had felt something, even if was only shock, but he had succeeded in concealing it. That was what baffled people, he knew. He had seen it in their faces, even in Horace’s. He didn’t react with the normal jealousy, and something was going to give. (p. 52)
At first, Vic’s actions have the desired effect on Joel and Ralph, and life with Melinda settles down for a bit. The Van Allens even have a fairly pleasant night out together, something that hasn’t happened for years. But then the police catch McRae’s real killer, blowing Vic’s claims out of the water…
Vic cannot stand the thought of Melinda dragging her latest beau, the piano player Charley De Lisle, to various social gatherings in front of their friends; and when the Cowans decide to throw a fancy-dress party at their home, with Charley providing the music for the event, this volatile situation come to a very dramatic head.
Deep Water is a brilliant thriller – expertly structured and paced, it remains suspenseful to the very end. One of the most impressive things about this novel is the way Highsmith draws on the reader’s natural emotions, prompting them to feel sympathetic towards an affable, downtrodden man – someone who ultimately goes on to commit a terrible crime.
The characterisation is uniformly excellent, from Vic and Melinda right down to the minor players in the story. For years, Vic has been taking it on the chin from Melinda, calmly turning a blind eye to all her embarrassing antics. To their friends, Vic is a saint, is the model of patience, respectability and integrity; and yet inside he is privately seething, the tensions simmering away. For years he has been playing a game, appearing relaxed and indifferent on the outside, but bristling away on the inside. By contrast, we feel very little compassion for Melinda, largely on account of her outrageous behaviour towards Vic and her abject neglect of Trixie; there are times when she appears unhinged and deranged, especially to some of her closest friends.
I’d better leave it there for fear of revealing anything more about the plot. All I can do is encourage you to read this terrific novel for yourselves – I doubt you’ll regret it.
Deep Water is published by Virago Books; personal copy.