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If you are yet to enjoy the thrill of a Patricia Highsmith novel, you’re really missing out. Perhaps most famous for her novels Strangers on a Train (1950) and The Talented Mr Ripley (1955), Highsmith crafts suspense like no other. Her narratives are geared to unsettle, bringing readers up close and personal with what she calls her ‘hero-criminals’—charming psychopaths, peeping toms, men caught between a rock and a hard place and quick to part with their moral scruples. While most of her novels have what she describes as ‘slow, even tranquil beginnings,’ there’s guaranteed to be a body count before too long.
Like her most famous character, Tom Ripley, Highsmith is something of an aesthete, and her characters are almost always well dressed and would never let something as bothersome as murder get in the way of cocktail hour or a dinner party at the neighbours’. From the outside her characters appear, or at least believe they appear, to be living a perfect life—the post-war American Dream. However, beneath the this finely polished surface seep the irritations, perversions and desires that were always going to make the realisation of that dream impossible.
In Deep Water (1957) Vic Van Allen seemingly has it all. Independently wealthy, he runs a boutique printing press and is a popular and respected member of the Little Wesley township. He has a fine house, a young daughter he dotes on and a beautiful, charming wife. However, in recent years his wife’s interest has begun to wander. When she begins to take lovers—all younger, attractive men—Vic turns a blind eye. However, she grows increasingly bold, parading her beaus at parties and balls for all the town to see. When he learns one of her past lovers has died under mysterious circumstances, he begins a rumour that he killed the man to scare off her suitors. What starts as a joke soon turns serious, and Vic begins to wonder what it would take to get away with murder.
Deep Water is classic Highsmith. Vic is abhorrent. A psychopath unaware of his monstrosity. The gap between who he believes himself to be, how he believes himself to be perceived by the good folk of Little Wesley and how he actually appears is chilling. He’s not one to be sympathised with, and yet you’d always rather learn his next move than see him be made answerable for his actions.
Highsmith was prolific, and her novels almost always deliver her unique brand of skin-crawling suspense. Deep Water is no exception. In fact, if you’re already well-acquainted with Ripley, this is a great place to start exploring Highsmith’s larger body of work (I also highly recommend The Cry of the Owl (1962)). However, if Highsmith is new to you, you absolutely must get your hands on a copy of The Talented Mr Ripley.
If her books alone don’t leave you suitably creeped out, check out Joan Schenkar’s biography, The Talented Miss Highsmith: The Secret Life and Serious Art of Patricia Highsmith (2010). It’s a monster, but well worth the time, as Highsmith, it seems, was even more intriguing than her murderous creations.