Sarah Hilary on Deep Water: Like the Best of Highsmith’s Stories, This One Will Have you Squirming

Sarah Hilary on Deep Water: Like the Best of Highsmith’s Stories, This One Will Have you Squirming

In the end, I settled on Deep Water, one of Highsmith’s most successful thrillers, told from the perspective of cuckolded husband Vic Van Allen, pillar of his small community, publisher of obscure texts, and keeper of snails. After the accidental death of one of his wife’s lovers, Vic starts the rumour that he might have murdered the man. The rumour becomes a daydream and the daydream becomes a plot to carry out just such a murder.

As with Tom Ripley, Vic’s view of the world is peculiar to say the least. We are drawn to it in spite of ourselves and because Highsmith is so consistent, careful and credible as a storyteller. This is not the same as saying that her stories are always credible (many aren’t), rather it’s the way in which she tells them that rings clear and true. Her writing is so coolly finessed and acutely observed that we never for a second doubt the authenticity of what we’re reading, no matter how far her heroes stray from our idea of acceptable or even usual behaviour. At one point in the story, Vic is observed by a psychologist who decides he must be schizophrenic. As readers, we accept both the diagnosis and Vic’s plausible amusement in response to it. What’s worse, his guilt never materialises, at least not on the page — don’t be surprised if you begin to experience it on his behalf. Like the best of Highsmith’s stories, this one will have you squirming.

In Deep Water, none of the tension sits on the surface yet still the whole story ripples with it. Highsmith rarely uses confrontation to heighten our sense of fear or excitement. Instead she achieves this by painstakingly laying out the facts for our consideration, leading us all the while further and further into the nightmare and towards a conclusion that’s unguessable yet entirely convincing—the only conclusion in fact which we would accept.

We don’t race to get there. This isn’t a book you can’t put down. In fact, I recommend putting it down often, to allow time to assimilate the information Highsmith rations out in her own patient (some might say sadistic) way.

In case you’re thinking, ‘This doesn’t sound much like a thriller,’ trust me. Deep Water is one of the deadliest I’ve read. Much of its tension comes from the control that Highsmith exercises as a writer. She’ll have you in her clutches by the end of the first three chapters. Her distant, documentary prose style may trick you into thinking you’re not hooked or transported, but that’s her genius. She’s smart enough to know she needn’t transport us anywhere; all the horror is right here inside our heads. And bubbling away within communities like the one which supports Vic Van Allen right up until the final, shocking parting of ways.

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Sarah Hilary’s debut, SOMEONE ELSE’S SKIN, won Theakstons Crime Novel of the Year 2015 and was a World Book Night selection for 2016. The Observer’s Book of the Month (“superbly disturbing”) and a Richard & Judy Book Club bestseller, it has been published worldwide. NO OTHER DARKNESS, the second in the series was shortlisted for a Barry Award in the US. Her DI Marnie Rome series continued with TASTES LIKE FEAR and a fourth book, QUIETER THAN KILLING, comes out in March 2017.