Deep Water by Patricia Highsmith

Deep Water is another top-notch novel from Patricia Highsmith, up there with the best of the Ripleys for me. The book was published in 1957, two years after The Talented Mr Ripley with which it shares a focus on the psychological – in other words, the motives that drive certain individuals to behave in very 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, thereby 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, sniping and needling as the couple rub up against one another whenever they are at home 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 Vic’s face by inviting them home in the evenings for copious drinks and some intimate dancing. (Vic rarely dances himself; in fact, he actively abstains from dancing 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.

To make matters worse, Melinda usually manages to wangle an invitation for her latest man whenever the Van Allens are invited to the home of one of their neighbours – 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 pals.

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. Actually, it is their idiotic nature that Vic really takes issue with – well, this and the fact that 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)

Vic himself is 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 her 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 relations between her parents. 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 the whole business has 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 off. 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; the perpetrator is 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 is not the mild-mannered doormat he appears to be. 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 him, more willing to believe that he might have killed McRae 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; and before Vic knows it, there’s a new man in Melinda’s life – Charley De Lisle, the piano player at the Chesterfield bar. Vic cannot stand the thought of Melinda dragging 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, things come to a dramatic head.

Deep Water is a truly brilliant thriller – expertly structured and paced, it remains suspenseful right to the very end. There is a sense that something dreadful might happen at any moment, just when the reader is least expecting it.

One of the most impressive things about this novel is the way Highsmith draws on the reader’s natural emotions, prompting them to feel a great deal sympathy for an affable, downtrodden man 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’m going to 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.

35 thoughts on “Deep Water by Patricia Highsmith

  1. madamebibilophile

    This sounds brilliant Jacqui, and so chilling, because the domestic setting makes you wonder what is going on behind the seemingly ordinary lives of all the other mild-mannered people you know!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, the domestic setting works so well here, that veneer of respectability which covers a whole host of problems lurking beneath. There is a hint of David Lynch/Blue Velvet about this story, the element of darkness behind the white picket fence. It makes me wonder if Lynch is a fan of Highsmith’s work.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Susan. Yes, I recall your review of The Crime Writer. Have you read any of Highsmith’s other books? If not, I think this would be a great introduction for you – the emphasis is definitely on the psychological dynamics at play here.

      Reply
  2. heavenali

    Great review! I read this a few months ago, my first Highsmith and it led me to read two more . I just loved the psychology of the novel and the way Highsmith makes the reader side with the murderer.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Ali. It’s great to hear that you’re enjoying Highsmith so much! I do think she’s a brilliant writer, so good when it comes to conveying the vagaries of the human pysche. As you say, what’s so clever about this novel is the way she gets you on side with Vic form the start – and before you know it, you’re cheering on a psychopath. Quite chilling in many ways.

      Reply
  3. Brian Joseph

    Great commentary Jacqui. The plot and characters in this book sounds so interesting. The situation seems so alien, that of a partner in an outwardly intact marriage having open affairs, yet it is fascinating. Sometimes such strangeness is what makes a story so good.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, it’s a strange situation – although I can imagine it happening, especially in the 1950s or ’60s. The way the book is written makes everything seem so convincing.

      Reply
  4. Caroline

    It’s been ages since I last read her. This sounds excellent indeed. I think I’ve got a few unread ones on the piles but I wouldn’t mind picking this one up.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s been good to get back to her after a bit of a break. I had almost forgotten how clever she can be when it comes to pacing and structure. Everything works so well here, particularly the way she handles the dynamics between the main characters at various points in the story. I really think you would like it a lot.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, that’s definitely her forte. Even Carol/The Price of Salt deals with recognisable themes of desire and obsession, albeit in a very different context to some of her other (better-known) books.

      Reply
  5. Resh Susan @ The Book Satchel

    Great review! I have not read Patricia Highsmith and I hope to buy a book of hers soon (Perhaps the Virago reprint itself. I love the while collection of striking covers). I am eager that the book has a domestic setting as well as tugs on the emotions of the reader – an excellent combination

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Well, if it’s a domestic setting you’re after, then I would definitely recommend this one – the little details are spot on. All in all, it would make an excellent introduction to Highsmith. I think it would give you a great feel for her signature style and favourite themes.

      Reply
  6. banff1972

    Been a long time since I read this but it is my favourite Highsmith (though I’ve only read a few)/. For many years I dreamed of teaching this as the last text in a class on the idea of Great Books. As I recall, she’s very clever here about the relationship between literature/culture and violence/murder. Hasn’t happened yet, but maybe one day!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      What a great idea – you should totally do it! I for one would love to hear your thoughts on it. I’m not sure about the relationship between literature/culture and violence/murder, but she definitely has a lot to say about the underlying psychology here. At a crucial point in the story, an act of violence almost seems to come out of a nowhere. It’s quite a shock. But then again, when you consider what this character’s been dealing with over the years, maybe it’s not that surprising after all…

      Reply
      1. banff1972

        Been so long since I read it I can’t comment intelligently. But in my memory Highsmith juxtaposes the murder’s trappings of high culture (the prestige press, fine editions, etc) with the violence of the act. I guess she does that with Ripley too, though I haven’t yet read them…

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Ah, got it! Yes, there’s a an interesting contrast there. Very clever of Highsmith to accentuate that facet of Vic’s personality as it only adds to his aura of gentleness and respectability. Plus, she also makes it clear that’s he’s very considerate to his employees. How could a mild-mannered, cultured man of his calibre possibly be involved in such a shocking act of violence? No wonder he doesn’t come under suspicion, especially at first.

          Reply
  7. bookbii

    Excellent review Jacqui, I think there’s as much tension in your review as there is in the book! Highsmith seems to be a very adept character-driven writer, well worthy of the respect that garners around her name. I have a feeling I might have a Highsmith novel in my massive TBR. If so, I should definitely bump it up the list.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Belinda. I was hoping to give a flavour of the book in my review! Yes, do bump it up the pile – she’s definitely more interesting than your average crime writer.

      Reply
  8. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Great review, as always Jacqui. Interesting how the narrative slants towards approval of Vic and disapproval of his wife – I wonder whether a feminist reading of the situation would turn our sympathies towards Melinda, a woman who obviously shouldn’t be married and certainly not to someone who breeds snails… But I suppose there would be no tension or plot then! :))

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Karen. That’s certainly a different way of way of looking at it. I’ll be discussing the novel with my book group later tonight. We’re quite a mixed group — 4 women and 3 men — so it’ll be interesting to see if anyone feels sympathetic towards Melinda. She’s definitely not cut out for conventional married life, that’s for sure.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It is excellent and definitely your type of thing. Nevertheless, I hear what you’re saying about the others in your tbr – naturally they must take priority.

      The book group discussion was very interesting, especially in terms of responses to the two central characters – only one or two members felt a degree of sympathy for Melinda. If anything, people wanted more backstory, a greater insight into how Vic and Melinda had got to the stage they were at when the story starts.

      Most of the group really liked the book overall, but a couple of people (one male, one female) were a little less enthusiastic – primarily because they felt the plot was a bit too predictable. The visual nature of the story came through very strongly – quite a few of us imagined it playing out as a film in our heads. (Apparently there was a French adaptation some years ago – one of the guys had googled it — but it’s not terribly well known. There’s talk of another in the future, but nothing firm at this stage. I need to do a bit of research on this myself.)

      All in all, I’d say it was a hit with 5/7 of us, which is not bad going for our group. Our greatest success has probably been In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes – my previous choice from last year. Everyone really loved that one – the characterisation, atmosphere, storyline, everything.

      Reply
  9. Sarah

    I’m currently enjoying a bit of a Highsmith binge fest. I enjoyed The Talented Mr Ripley so much I’ve devoured both my own clutch of her novels and those at the library. This sounds brilliant. It might be the novel that breaks my book-buying ban for the year. Bring it on!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      A Highsmith binge fest sounds like a very tasty prospect indeed. I would definitely recommend this one, particularly as you enjoyed The Talented Mr Ripley so much. Even though the settings are quite different from one another (domestic suburbia vs the glamour of Italy), there are some interesting parallels between the two books. I think you would like it a great deal.

      Reply
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