Part of the natural evil that permeated man’s existence

Deep Water book coverDeep Water
by Patricia Highsmith

I picked this up in a huge secondhand bookshop in Amsterdam where I was overwhelmed with choice. I always like a crime novel on holiday and this is a thriller par excellence. I don’t think Highsmith has let me down yet.

This psychological thriller seems cosy at first but with an undercurrent of something terrible coming. In the small New England town of Little Wesley, Massachusetts, there is a cocktail party under way. Local publisher Victor Van Allen is making small talk, but he is embarrassed that his wife Melinda has insisted on bringing along her current lover, Joel Nash. Vic is sure that everyone else knows the nature of Melinda and Joel’s relationship and that they all judge him for accepting it.

This is not Melinda’s first extramarital affair. She has had a string of them for the past few years and Vic didn’t mind much at first, but it is starting to bother him. So he decides to have a word with Joel before they leave the party. It just happens that an ex-lover of Melinda’s, Malcolm McRae, was murdered six months earlier and the case has not been solved. Vic decides to tell Joel that he was the murderer, to see how Joel reacts.

It’s an intriguing introduction to a character. Though the narrative is not first person, it is a very close third person that gets right into Victor Van Allen’s mind. And though it gradually becomes clear that Vic’s mind is not a comfortable place to be and that he has the potential to be capable of doing terrible things, you also sympathise with him right from the start.

“The likelihood of typographical errors in spite of rigorous proof reading was going to be the subject of an essay that he would write one day, Vic thought. There was something demoniacal and insuperable about typographical errors, as if they were part of the natural evil that permeated man’s existence.”

Vic is 36, married to a beautiful woman, has a well-liked 5-year-old daughter Trixie and is himself well-respected for his intellectual pursuits. He is a devoted father (he pays far more attention to Trixie than Melinda does), a generous employer at the small press he owns, arguably a loyal friend and husband, and is not a snob despite having inherited wealth. But he does care what people think of him, perhaps a little too much.

Another character in the novel calls Vic a schizophrenic, but I think the blurb’s description of psychopath rings truer. He can seem oddly unmoved at times, though he clearly does experience anger and jealousy. His odd habits – such as raising snails to observe their mating habits, or having a garage full of experiments to write to scientific journals about – work as much to illustrate his position as an intellectual using his wealth for esoteric pursuits, as they do to separate him from the concept of “normality”. In fact, his friends enjoy hearing about his experiments at dinner parties, and the only habits of his they find hard to understand are those related to Melinda: Vic’s separate bedroom, his willingness to have his wife’s lovers over for dinner or drinks, his apparent public acceptance of her affairs.

The novel is an analysis of 1950s middle class suburbia – the cliques, the gossip, the closing of ranks, the preservation of the status quo. Vic might be a little odd, but he is one of Little Wesley’s own, whereas Melinda’s lovers tend to be outsiders. People start taking sides in the Van Allen marriage and their decisions are not necessarily based on evidence.

“He saw people pointing him out to their dancing partners, then discussing him volubly, though always out of his earshot…But Vic did not mind the shunning and the whispers. It made him feel strangely more comfortable and secure, in fact, than he usually felt at parties, perhaps because the whispering and pointing, at both him and Melinda, fairly guaranteed that Melinda would behave herself tonight.”

The tension ramps up quickly, and when violence first occurs, it is clearly not the peak. Right up until the last few pages I was not sure how it could all end, but Highsmith pulls off the perfect crescendo.

First published in the USA in 1957.

Source: The Book Exchange, Amsterdam.