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Summer 2023 articles

Murder and Aesthetics in Patricia Highsmith’s Deep Water

Robert Lance Snyder


Patricia Highsmith’s fifth novel, Deep Water (1957), revolves around three murders committed by 36-year-old Victor Van Allen, head of Greenspur Press in Little Wesley, Massachusetts, and a genuine aesthete whose interests include handset colophons, snails, bee culture, carpentry, music, painting, stargazing, and gardening. An esteemed non-conformist in an upscale New England community, Van Allen is initially tolerant of his wife’s serial infidelities but reaches a breaking point when he kills two of her lovers before strangling his spouse. Highsmith’s mordantly unsettling narrative anticipates the mimetic fascination with murder in postmodern popular culture that ever since Thomas De Quincey’s 1827 satirical essay on the subject has abounded in fiction, nonfiction, and film. Writing against the grain of post-World War II conformism, Highsmith proleptically addresses issues of maladaptation in her portrait of a repressed sociopath who attempts to mask his inner rage via the sublimation of aesthetic pursuits.

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  • 1 For helpful coverage of the mimetic fascination with murder, serial and otherwise, in twentieth-cen (...)

1Behind the mimetic fascination with murder, suicide, and assassination in postmodern popular culture, as Joel Black has shown, lie Romantic theories of the sublime and essayist Thomas De Quincey’s “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts” (1827). Seventy years before this satire Edmund Burke had posited in A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757) that, in contrast to the beautiful as a source of aesthetic pleasure, “the sublime was rooted in a primal impulse of self-preservation that was intrinsically amoral and antisocial” (Black, Aesthetics of Murder 14). Detecting a contradiction in Immanuel Kant’s rationalistic treatment of the natural sublime in Critique of Judgment (1790), De Quincey then carried it to its logical conclusion by proposing that even something as heinous as murder can be considered a manifestation of the sublime. “Although De Quincey may not have inaugurated the subgenre of crime fiction in which the criminal ... is the protagonist,” Black observes elsewhere, “he can be credited with having legitimated this subgenre as an art form” (“Crime Fiction” 80). A sampling of twentieth-century novels, or in some cases quasi-fiction, and films bears out this legacy: Albert Camus’s The Stranger (1942), Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me (1952), Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (1966), Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), Brian De Palma’s Dressed to Kill (1980), Paul Schrader’s Mishima (1985), Don DeLillo’s Libra (1988), Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho (1991), and Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994).1

2Patricia Highsmith’s Deep Water (1957) can legitimately be added to this list. By any standard Victor Van Allen, the 36-year-old protagonist of her fifth novel, is a discriminating aesthete. After publishing a dual-language edition of Xenophon’s Country Life and Economics, his twenty-seventh book as the head of highly praised Greenspur Press in Little Wesley, Massachusetts, Van Allen derives fulfillment from handsetting colophons from dried leaves, flowers, and insect cocoons for a collection of poems by a young instructor at Bard College named Brian Ryder. He also is a polymath with wide-ranging interests. Besides his curiosity about the reproductive cycles of snails, of which species he keeps hundreds in glass aquariums, Vic studies bookbinding, bee culture, cheese making, carpentry, music, painting, stargazing, and gardening. Overriding fulfillment from all these pursuits, however, is his wife Melinda’s serial infidelities. Having met her at age 22 when she possessed “a certain iconoclasm and imagination in her rebellion that had attracted Vic because it was like his own” (29), she has been unfaithful to him repeatedly since the birth of their six-year-old daughter Beatrice (Trixie). Small wonder, then, that the narrative’s opening paragraph, describing a soirée at the home of his friends Horace and Ann Meller, profiles Van Allen as a man set ambiguously apart:

Vic didn’t dance, but not for the reasons that most men who didn’t dance give to themselves. He didn’t dance simply because his wife liked to dance. His rationalization of his attitude was a flimsy one and didn’t fool him for a minute, though it crossed his mind every time he saw Melinda dancing: she was insufferably silly when she danced. She made dancing embarrassing. (13)

3His wife’s conduct at the Mellers’ fête causes Vic acute shame, such that when her latest boyfriend Joel Nash, an unprepossessing salesman for the Furness-Klein Chemical Company in neighboring Wesley, sits down with him during an intermission and mouths some affected Anglicisms—“I want to say what a brick I think you are for being so nice about my seeing your wife,” “[A] lot of men would have knocked my block off for less,” “I wanted to say I think you’re awfullly sporting”—a polite Vic replies wryly that “I don’t waste my time punching people on the nose. If I really don’t like somebody, I kill him” (17). He then mentions the unsolved murder of Malcolm McRae in New York, one of Melinda’s former lovers. Although Highsmith’s main character did not commit that homicide, the implication sobers Nash and thereby accomplishes Vic’s immediate purpose of repelling him.

  • 2 Ingrid Hotz-Davies argues that the sense of dread evoked by Highsmith’s fiction, which Michael Tras (...)

4Van Allen subsequently will commit three impromptu murders, culminating in that of his spouse, but the mordant nature of Highsmith’s “plain style,” which Terrence Rafferty likens to the straightforwardness of a strip-search (74), avoids any psychoanalytical explanations.2 Instead she presents readers with a parody of normativity in the upscale suburbs of Massachusetts as the Van Allens go about their daily lives. This regimen includes, besides the high consumption of alcohol and dusk-to-dawn festivities with Mrs. Van Allen’s frequent male guests, the couple’s strained tolerance of each other amid Melinda’s repeated breaches of their marital vows. Clearly there is something pathologically dysfunctional about these circumstances, but what looms as even stranger is how both parties have come to accept their deeply fractured relationship. While Vic in a reversal of traditional gender roles assumes primary responsibility for their daughter’s care, routinely vacuums the house, and often prepares meals for the family, his wife gads about town occasionally visiting her few women friends but more often the several men who strike her fancy. Out of concern for Vic’s feelings, trusted associates like older Horace Meller have avoided outright criticism and advised him to “put his foot down about Melinda” (25), but this unspoken code of public forbearance coupled with a private appeal to masculine resolution is rapidly showing its inadequacy. “I have no pride,” reflects Vic “proudly” (21; italics in original), the thought betraying a narcissistic sense of superiority to nearly all the others by whom he is surrounded. Although framed in a far different setting than Highsmith’s The Cry of the Owl (1962), Deep Water projects the same stranglehold that post-World War II conformism was exerting on the American public in the guise of normalcy, while seeming to valorize an exception to that consensus.

5Victor Van Allen’s tolerance of his wife’s egregious behavior is an extension of his liberal convictions during the stifling ethos of the 1950s. Though fully aware that “nearly everybody” in Little Wesley “considered him odd for enduring” Melinda’s frequent affairs, “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.” His sorely tried tolerance begins to wane, however, when nauseated by 29-year-old Ralph Gosden, another of Melinda’s fatuous liaisons, and “aware of a stong, primitive antagonism to Mr. Godsen that he had never felt before” (38), Vic reprises the tale he had told to Joel Nash earlier, though in this iteration he claims to have killed Malcolm McRae. Clearly the border between fantasy and actuality is becoming more porous for Highsmith’s protagonist. Despite being disgusted by his wife’s sucession of consorts, Van Allen even broaches the idea of a “charitable, fair-minded, civilized” ménage à trois “in which all three of them might ... benefit from contact with one another. Dostoyevsky had known what he meant. Goethe might have understood too” (48). Reminded of Melinda’s predilection in men, though, Vic realizes the improbability of such an arrangement. When a humorless new arrival in town, Don Wilson, begins a rumor campaign against Vic based on his claim about having murdered Malcolm McRae, things come to a head upon Melinda’s taking up with Charley De Lisle, a visiting pianist at the Lord Chesterfield bar in town. Put off by the man’s inanity as well as by his “swarthy” face and “heavily brilliantined hair,” which make him look like “an Italian crook” (71), Vic accurately anticipates that Melinda will drag Charley with them to parties at their friends’ homes. “The shame of endorsing socially a guttersnipe like Charley De Lisle,” writes Highsmith, “seemed more than he could bear” (78). Not long afterward, while attending a costume event at the residence of Phil and Evelyn Cowans where De Lisle is providing the musical entertainment, Van Allen finds himself alone with Charley in their hosts’ pool, everyone else being inside. As the maladept swimmer flounders, Vic strikes out from the deep water, seizes the interloper by the throat, and drowns him. When the other guests discover the body, “it seemed unreal [to Vic] that he had drowned De Lisle, seemed like something he had imagined rather than done” (103).

6The same fertile imagination that stimulates Van Allen’s aesthetic interests, in other words, overmasters volition when his sensibilities are offended. Although a distraught Melinda shrieks “‘Vic killed him. I know he did!’... loud enough for the whole neighborhood to hear her, though there were no houses for a quarter of a mile around” (106; italics in original), both Vic and the townspeople he esteems essentially marginalize the event. For his part Van Allen recognizes that “Something ... must be holding back his reactions of guilt or horror at what he had done. It was very strange.... Without consciously realizing it, he had felt absolutely secure. Secure from detection” (110). At the same time, upon receiving a telephone call from Evelyn Cowans in which she warns him that owing to Don Wilson’s instigation “there’s going to be some whispering,” he “marvel[s] at the human capacity for self-deception. It had become so much a habit for their friends to ignore, to wink at Melinda’s behavior they could almost believe now that there was nothing to wink at” (111). Class consciousness having dismissed the circumstances of Charley De Lisle’s death, Vic becomes more devoted than before to his recondite interests.

  • 3 In this regard see Fiona Peters’s “Uncanny Snails: Patricia Highsmith and the Allure of the Gastrop (...)

7At this juncture comes the first of two linked passages about one of those interests that could appear only in a novel by Highsmith, who had an inveterate fondness for gastropods (Wilson 266-68).3 As Melinda continues to accuse him of having murdered Charley, a guilt-free Vic “felt something in him hardening against her. She had got what she deserved, and she was powerless to do anything against him” (120). Upon returning home from a coroner’s inquest, Melinda goes inside while her husband carries his collection of snails from the garage to the backyard so that they can benefit from an impending rainfall. Highsmith elaborates:

The snails loved the rain. [Vic] bent over one aquarium, watching the snails he called Edgar and Hortense as they slowly approached each other, lifted their heads, kissed, and glided on. They would probably mate this afternoon, in the light rain that filtered through the screen. They mated about once every week, and they were genuinely in love, Vic thought, because Edgar had eyes for no other snail but Hortense and Hortense never responded to the attempt of another snail to kiss her. Three-quarters of the thousand-odd snails he had were their progeny. They were quite considerate of each other as to which had the burden of egg-laying—a twenty-four-hour procedure at least—and it was only Vic’s opinion that Hortense laid more often than Edgar, which was why he had given her the feminine name. That was true love, Vic thought, even if they were only gastropoda. (120)

8Van Allen’s romanticization of this scene as epitomizing the reciprocity of “true love” reveals the aesthete’s fanciful projection of an Arcadian era when things were as they should be. The passage conveys both the pathos of his attachment to Melinda as well as an insight into the reason for her disaffection from a mismatched husband. His impulsive drowning of Charley De Lisle can thus be construed as an attempt to assert conjugal primacy of place in a dysfunctional relationship. Given the couple’s marital history, the wonder is that Highsmith’s protagonist has waited as long as he has to act decisively.

  • 4 Vic’s cunning in trying to draw Carpenter out shortly after being introduced to him is apparent whe (...)

9Exactly a hundred pages later Vic Van Allen will lash out again, but first he wrestles with an internal schism that is beginning to widen. On the one hand, recognizing that Melinda “seemed to be brewing some retaliation against him,” though unsure about what form it will take, Vic “minimize[s] her behavior to her friends ... in the most gallant and sympathetic manner” (121). Even when Horace Meller suggests that Melinda may be “a bit off” and adds that “I don’t see why you put up with it” (123), appealing once again to his masculine pride, Van Allen downplays the situation. On the other hand, despite his outward placidity, Vic senses “a steely hardness, a not entirely unpleasant tenseness whose components he did not really know. Hatred? Resentment? Fear? Guilt? Or was it simply pride and satisfaction? It was like a core in him. Another question was, had it always been in him or was it something new?” (125). The answer to the last question, suggests Highsmith, is undecidable. As though to intimate the compensatory escape of domestic routine, Vic resumes his daily round of chores while his wife remains aloof. The status quo changes, however, when he discovers that Melinda has retained a private detective from Manhattan named Harold Carpenter. At the same time as Van Allen is starting to “realize more acutely that he was leading two lives and that the friendships he now enjoyed with Horace and Phil, for instance, existed because they did not know the truth about him” (142), he also recognizes that “a dark, hard knot of repressions and resentments in himself” has been untied with De Lisle’s murder. Although Vic cannot “see himself as a criminal, a psychopath” (143), he becomes warier and more devious, subtly testing Carpenter’s pretence of being a visiting psychotherapist at the nearby Kennington Institute.4 His suspicion increases when Horace Mellers confides to Van Allen that Harold Carpenter does not know anybody at Columbia University, where the new arrival is supposedly completing his psychiatric training. On the night of a birthday dinner for his wife attended by the Mellers and Carpenter, as Vic slips into sleep, “the antagonism rose slowly in him against Melinda, almost involuntarily, wraithlike, groping like a wrestler for a hold.... It was as if she wore a label, ‘My Enemy,’ in his mind, and his enemy she was, beyond the reach of reason or imagination of change” (161). His antipathy toward her now all but irreversible, Van Allen still must endure one more affront to his status as Melinda’s husband.

10That indignity comes not long after Vic bristles at his own inaction and, deliberately accosting Ralph Gosden and Don Wilson in town, makes clear that he knows they are conspiring against him. A turning point has been reached. Canceling Harold Carpenter’s services, for which Melinda has been paying from their joint checking account, Highsmith’s protagonist confronts her and asks whether she wants a divorce with an equitable division of their assets. Surprisingly, Vic’s wife answers “No” but adds that she would “like to smash your lousy ego,” at which point comes an insight into Van Allen’s increasingly detached observation of himself as though he were an actor performing a scripted scene:

A laugh bubbled up in him, and then he was serious again. ‘No, not ego. Just the pieces of myself that I can put together again and hold together—by force of will. Will power, if you like, that’s what I live on, but not ego. How could I possibly have any?’ he finished desperately, enjoying the discussion immensely and also enjoying the sound of his own voice, which seemed to be objective, like his own voice on a tape-recording machine being played back to him. (174)

11The subtlety of this diegetic passage is impressive. Viva voce, Vic is enacting self-imposture, pretending to have a shattered ego while simultaneously exalting his Nietzschean “force of will” that serves as a substitute, all the while reveling in the echo chamber of his histrionics. Left far behind in this exchange is the tripartite Freudian paradigm of the psyche. Van Allen knows that he is playing the role of an emotionally shattered husband, but what counts for him is the inventive brilliance of his oratorical performance. The aesthete in him cannot resist the challenge of calculated artifice and deception.

  • 5 Vic Van Allen’s concern for and attention to his six-year-old daughter, contrasting sharply with Me (...)

12Things reach an impasse a few months later, however, when Melinda discovers yet another man, one who fuels Vic’s hostility toward a déclassé competitor. Although he “felt more cheerful and benign than ever,” knowing himself to be “an esteemed resident of Little Wesley” (176), doltish contractor Anthony Cameron, visiting the region to build a house for a client, arouses Van Allen’s visceral loathing. When he learns from Horace Meller that Melinda is planning to abscond to Mexico City with Cameron and that she now consents to a divorce, Vic offers to drive the contractor to an abandoned quarry just outside of town. While Cameron is surveying the surrounding view, Van Allen hurls two large rocks at him, plunging his rival down a steep cliff. Ballasting the body with stones, he then tethers it with a chain and lowers it to a limestone shelf twenty feet down in the water. Vic’s behavior after committing his second murder indicates that he is not haunted by any qualms of conscience. Returning to the downtown area, he enjoys a concert in which his daughter is performing and imagines that he can hear Trixie’s voice in the chorus singing the final lines of a piece by Camille Saint-Saëns: “The swan—like mist has gone—with the light—the light.” Writes Highsmith: “It seemed to him that she was singing in joyous celebration of Cameron’s disappearance, instead of the swan’s. As well she might, he thought” (225; italics in original).5

  • 6 Highsmith acidly observes that Little Wesley’s pride in one of its own under these circumstances “s (...)

13From this point onward the location of Cameron’s undiscovered homicide becomes the staging ground for the novel’s climax. Although Melinda communicates often with Don Wilson about Anthony’s mysterious disappearance and assists a persistent detective hired by Cameron’s construction company to investigate, the gumshoe from New York gets nowhere in Little Wesley. When the uncouth Pete Havermal leaves after a week, “The whole town seemed to give a sigh of relief.... People on the streets seemed to smile more, to smile at each other, as if to say that their solidarity had defeated one more detested outsider.”6 Reassured by this manifestation of what he chooses to interpret as “community loyalty” (248), Victor Van Allen is the guest of honor at a gathering hosted by the Petersons, the parents of Trixie’s best friend, and to his astonishment notices that his wife is becoming more solicitous toward him. Bewildered by this radical change on her part, crowned by Melinda’s lavish celebration of his birthday, Vic nonetheless cannot wean himself from the suspicion that she is “playing some kind of game” (250). And indeed Melinda is. Shortly thereafter, beguiling her husband by seeming repentance for her past waywardness, she manages to confuse him so much that he uncharacteristically blurts out the question, “Melinda, what’re you up to?” (258). When she temporizes, he agrees to her suggestion of a Sunday afternoon picnic at the East Lyme quarry where he murdered Cameron. Once there he is even unfazed by Melinda’s saying, “I think you killed Charley and Tony too—so why not admit it to me?” The serial murderer’s stolid response? “Vic smiled a little, his suspicions confirmed. The purpose of her sweetness and light lately had been to make him believe she was on his side” (262). Denying any responsibility for the homicides, though inwardly angry with Melinda for “her embarrassing pretense of affection for him” (263), Van Allen is disconcerted when peering into the quarry he notes that the chain has come off Cameron’s submerged corpse.

14In noir fiction generally, and Deep Water fully qualifies, the memory of a one-time romantic attraction called love expires quickly (Lehman 53, 62-63). Such is the case in the novel’s last chapter. When Vic revisits the quarry the following Monday, intending to anchor Cameron’s body anew, he discovers that what he had glimpsed at the picnic with Melinda was apparently a hypnagogic illusion, suggesting his fraught state of mind at the time. What he now sees is only a water-soaked roll of pulp paper tied in two places with twine. While Van Allen is climbing back up the precipice, however, he encounters Don Wilson who, discovering some bloodstains on nearby rocks, vows to have the police search the area. Now feeling suddenly vulnerable, Vic returns home and encounters his wife, who admits to having just spoken with Wilson. Exploding into a white-hot rage, he yanks out the home’s two telephones from their outlets, strikes Melinda repeatedly, and then, hearing a car outside, strangles her to death. Most critics agree with Fiona Peters that Highsmith’s anti-hero has finally descended into full-blown psychosis (Anxiety and Evil 45-46), one sign of this devolution being the aesthetically minded Van Allen’s sense of liberation from the mundane world in the book’s concluding paragraph:

[H]e began to feel free and buoyant, and guiltless, too. He looked at Wilson ... and, feeling very calm and happy, Vic kept looking at Wilson’s wagging jaw and thinking of the multitude of people like him on the earth, perhaps half the people on earth were of his type ... and thinking that it was not bad at all to be leaving them. The ugly birds without wings. The mediocre who perpetuated mediocrity[.] (271)

15Smiling at Wilson’s grim face, “which was the reflection of the small, dull mind behind it,” Vic “cursed it and all it stood for.”

  • 7 Hesford explains that the metaphor of “containment” was first used by George Kennan, the director o (...)

16Earlier I cited the text’s first of two encomiums on snails that draw attention to Vic’s fantasy life. Without detailing the lengthy second description of Edgar and Hortense’s mating, suffice to say that it celebrates a slow-motion minuet of how Edgar and Hortense “adore each other, and how perfect they were together” (243). The interpolation suggests the sentimentality, as Leonard Cassuto has argued, that informs American crime fiction, but readers should also recognize that its inclusion just before the novel’s climax limns an established code of gender roles and reciprocity that was being tested in the 1950s. An incisive article by Victoria Hesford links this domestic ideology to “the Cold War culture of ‘containment,’ in which national security was predicated not just on the official foreign policy of containing the expansion of the Soviet Union, but also on containing the internal threat—the possible infiltration of the domestic, interior space of America by various ‘enemies within.’”7 The default effect, she adds, was to “destabilize, rather than stabilize, conceptions of American citizenship, home, and nation” (216). Hesford then proceeds to make the case that “Highsmith’s vision of 1950s America turns the Cold War domestic ideology of the middle-class home as a source of national strength and normality inside out, revealing the undertow of violence and sexual unconventionality that both prop up the public function of the middle-class home and constantly threaten to tear it apart” (217). As part of her evidence for that claim this scholar notes Vic Van Allen’s emasculation in Deep Water, his wife’s voracious sexual appetite for other men, and his assumption of domestic duties in their household. Vic’s sublimated desire then turns to aesthetic pursuits and murder, reinforcing a nexus anticipated by Thomas De Quincey and culminating in Van Allen’s being forced to surrender control of his home upon his eventual arrest.

17Reading Highsmith’s corpus of fiction is always a deeply unsettling experience because, as Graham Greene commented in a 1970 foreword to her short stories, she creates “a world without moral endings,” one “claustrophobic and irrational which we enter each time with a sense of personal danger, with the head half turned over the shoulder” (ix). Writing more than forty years later, her leading critic today concurs. “Something resembling an ontological blankness lies at the heart of Patricia Highsmith’s writing: a vacancy, a nothing, underpins her tantalizing and convoluted plots” (Peters, Anxiety and Evil 17). A relatively early study of the crime novel as a deviant, profoundly transgressive genre recognizes that “Guilt, though central to Highsmith’s fiction, tends to be rather free-floating” (Hilfer 123). The observation, though accurate, constitutes an understatement. Pursued far enough, Highsmith’s compelling narratives sketch not only a period-specific critique of postwar American culture but also a skeptical response to the logical positivism of an antecedent literature of detection.

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Black, Joel. The Aesthetics of Murder: A Study in Romantic Literature and Contemporary Culture. Johns Hopkins UP, 1991.

---. “Crime Fiction and the Literary Canon.” A Companion to Crime Fiction, edited by Charles J. Rzepka and Lee Horsley, Wiley-Blackwell, 2010, pp. 76-89.

Cassuto, Leonard. Hard-Boiled Sentimentality: The Secret History of American Crime Stories. Columbia UP, 2009.

Castle, Terry. “The Ick Factor.” The New Republic, 10 Nov. 2003, pp. 28-33.

Greene, Graham. Foreword. Eleven, by Patricia Highsmith, 1970, Grove, 2011, pp. ix-xii.

Hesford, Victoria. “Patriotic Perversions: Patricia Highsmith’s Queer Vision of Cold War America in The Price of Salt, The Blunderer, and Deep Water.” Women’s Studies Quarterly, vol. 33, nos. 3-4, 2005, pp. 215-33.

Highsmith, Patricia. The Cry of the Owl. 1962. Grove, 2011.

---. Deep Water. 1957. W. W. Norton, 2003.

Hilfer, Tony. The Crime Novel: A Deviant Genre. U of Texas P, 1990.

Hotz-Davies, Ingrid. “Textures of Uncertainty: Patricia Highsmith’s Minimalism.” Simplify, Simplify! Brevity, Plainness and Their Complications in American Literature and Culture, edited by Isabell Klaiber, Oliver Scheiding, and Jan Stievermann, Ferdinand Schönling, 2019, pp. 31-42.

Lehman, David. The Mysterious Romance of Murder: Crime, Detection, and the Spirit of Noir. Cornell UP, 2022.

MacDonald, Alzena, ed. Murders and Acquisitions: Representations of the Serial Killer in Popular Culture. Bloomsbury Academic, 2013.

Peters, Fiona. Anxiety and Evil in the Writings of Patricia Highsmith. Ashgate, 2011.

---. “Uncanny Snails: Patricia Highsmith and the Allure of the Gastropods.” Gothic Animals: Uncanny Otherness and the Animal With-Out, edited by Ruth Heholt and Melissa Edmundson, Palgrave Macmillan, 2020, pp. 159-71.

Rafferty, Terrence. “Fear and Trembling.” The New Yorker, 4 Jan. 1988, pp. 74-76.

Schmid, David. Natural Born Celebrities: Serial Killers in American Culture. U of Chicago P, 2005.

Trask, Michael. “Patricia Highsmith’s Method.” American Literary History, vol. 22, no. 3, 2010, pp. 584-614.

Wilson, Andrew. Beautiful Shadow: A Life of Patricia Highsmith. Bloomsbury, 2003.

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1 For helpful coverage of the mimetic fascination with murder, serial and otherwise, in twentieth-century American popular culture, see Alzena MacDonald and David Schmid.

2 Ingrid Hotz-Davies argues that the sense of dread evoked by Highsmith’s fiction, which Michael Trask sees as embracing a hermeneutics of suspicion, is “also a result of a particularly disturbing variety of narrative minimalism, of the calculated withholding of information. This minimalism ... lies at the heart of her understanding of human psychology as profoundly asocial, amoral, and ultimately unfathomable territory.” It is so unfathomable, adds this critic, that “even the twentieth-century’s master discourse of uncoding it, Freudian psychoanalysis, can only be drawn on with ironic skepticism” (32). Hotz-Davies then cites Trask’s observation about Highsmith’s “suspicion of psychoanalysis and its etiological paradigm” (594).

3 In this regard see Fiona Peters’s “Uncanny Snails: Patricia Highsmith and the Allure of the Gastropods.” Although she cites only the second of the linked passages, that which comes toward the end of Deep Water, Peters contends that Highsmith’s representation of snails both here and in two short stories of 1970 “presents motifs that are unquestionably Gothic. They are represented as both abject and uncanny” (161).

4 Vic’s cunning in trying to draw Carpenter out shortly after being introduced to him is apparent when as host he offhandedly remarks, “I was wondering if you thought my wife had any schizophrenic tendencies.” The detective posing as a genial psychotherapist dismisses the idea before the following exchange occurs:

‘She has a lot of charm,’ Carpenter said. ‘A kind of undisciplined charm.’
‘You mean the charm of no discipline.’
‘Yes,’ he said, smiling. ‘I mean she has more charm than she thinks she has.’
‘That’s quite a lot.’ (151)

The barbed repartee on Van Allen’s part suggests that not only is he matching wits with his new opponent but also casting aspersions on Melinda’s mental stability, an idea gleaned from Horace Meller’s earlier suggestion that she may be “a bit off.”

5 Vic Van Allen’s concern for and attention to his six-year-old daughter, contrasting sharply with Melinda’s indifference toward her throughout Deep Water, underscores the reversal of traditional gender roles in the microsphere he inhabits. Named after Dante’s muse and inspiration Beatrice, she figures as an apparition when Vic is being led away from his home in the novel’s ending: “He saw Trixie romping up the lawn and stopping in surprise as she saw him with the policeman, but ... Vic could see that she wasn’t really there. The sun was shining and Trixie was alive, somewhere” (270-71).

6 Highsmith acidly observes that Little Wesley’s pride in one of its own under these circumstances “seemed to be the old story of the conforming majority” rallying to support “the nonconformer, in this case his nonconformance being his income, he supposed, his nonprofitable publishing business, his tolerance of his wife’s affairs, his televisionless household, and perhaps even his superannuated car” (255).

7 Hesford explains that the metaphor of “containment” was first used by George Kennan, the director of Secretary of State George Marshall’s policy-planning staff, to describe a foreign-policy initiative in a 1947 paper, “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” published in Foreign Affairs.

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Electronic reference

Robert Lance Snyder, Murder and Aesthetics in Patricia Highsmith’s Deep WaterEuropean journal of American studies [Online], 18-2 | 2023, Online since 30 July 2023, connection on 14 April 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Robert Lance Snyder

Robert Lance Snyder is the author most recently of <em>John le Carré’s Post-Cold War Fiction</em> (U of Missouri P 2017) and <em>Eric Ambler’s Novels: Critiquing Modernity</em> (Lexington Books 2020), in addition to more than forty journal articles on the fiction of Graham Greene, Geoffrey Household, Len Deighton, Adam Hall, Charles McCarry, Olen Steinhauer, Dashiell Hammett, Frederick Forsyth, Jim Thompson, David Goodis, Ian McEwan, Stella Rimington, Patrick Hamilton, James M. Cain, Patricia Highsmith, Dan Fesperman, Ross Macdonald, Dorothy B. Hughes, Cornell Woolrich, Kenneth Fearing, and Paula Hawkins.

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