Thursday, 26 September 2013

Patricia Highsmith, Deep Water, the Hunt for the 1958 Heinemann First Edition, and a Review; a Friday's Forgotten Books Special

When Patti Nase Abbott announced a month or two back that this Friday's Forgotten Books round-up would be devoted to Patricia Highsmith, one book sprang immediately to my mind. I've read a lot of Highsmith – not all her work, not by any means (I haven't tried many of her short stories), but certainly well over half of her novels, including all five of the Tom Ripley booksThe Talented Mr. Ripley, Ripley Under Ground, Ripley's Game, The Boy Who Followed Ripley and Ripley Under Water, collectively known as the Ripliad, which I recently finished rereading – and almost all of the novels she published in the first half of her career, from Strangers on a Train (1950) to The Glass Cell (1964). (See the bottom of this post for links to some of my previous Highsmith missives.) With, until very recently, one glaring, early exception (well, two actually – I still haven't read 1952's pseudonymous The Price of Salt, but I consider that a less glaring exception than this one): 

Deep Water. Highsmith's fifth novel (including the aforementioned The Price of Salt), it was originally published in the States in 1957 by Harper & Brothers, and the following year in the UK by Heinemann, but the edition seen here is the 1961 Pan first British paperback edition (lovely cover art by Sam Peffer), which for a long time was the best I could do in terms of my collection. (Note to those readers not remotely interested in matters to do with book collecting: you might consider skipping the next few paragraphs and instead heading straight to the review of Deep Water further down the post; although, that said, if you really aren't remotely interested in matters to do with book collecting, one wonders what on earth you're doing reading Existential Ennui in the first place.)

See, although I've been collecting Patricia Highsmith in British hardback first edition for over five years (and reading her for a lot longer), I'd pretty much resigned myself to probably never owning dust-jacketed firsts of Strangers on a Train, The Blunderer, The Talented Mr. Ripley – all published in the UK by Cresset Press in, respectively, 1950, 1956 and 1957 – or Deep Water, due to their being prohibitively expensive (not to mention scarce). Instead I'd collected (less valuable but arguably scarcer) Corgi and Pan paperbacks of those four books and resolved that if I ever won the Lottery, I'd revisit the situation.

Still and all, Deep Water, being the first of the sixteen Highsmith novels published by Heinemann in the UK (not counting their later reissues of Strangers, Blunderer and Talented), and the only one I didn't own, remained a tantalising prospect. Despite being the rarest of all the early Highsmith British firsts (I suspect Heinemann underestimated their print run in the wake of Talented; the book was reprinted in the year of publication), historically prices haven't been too astronomical, floating somewhere around the £250–£300 mark for a first impression – still out of my range, obviously, but given a little luck... And so I'd check the likes of AbeBooks and eBay periodically, wondering if an affordable copy might somehow hove into view (I thought I was in with a chance when a first appeared on eBay one time, but then bidding went north of £100) – until, quite unexpectedly, one did:

A genuine 1958 Heinemann first edition/first impression. It popped up on AbeBooks a month ago, and even though I didn't have an alert set, I happened to be looking, and after establishing that it was indeed a first impression – as evidenced by the dust jacket back flap (which on the same-year reprint carries reviews of the novel itself) and the interior copyright line – I snapped it up. The only real fault is there's a small chunk missing from the wrapper, but considering I paid a fraction of the going rate, I can live with that. The dust jacket, by the way, was designed by Stein, who also designed the wrapper for the 1959 Heinemann edition of A Game for the Living, and it's now taken its place in the Existential Ennui Beautiful British Book Jacket Design of the 1950s and 1960s gallery (increasing the number of covers therein to 120).

So, having at long last acquired a Heinemann first of Deep Water, and knowing that the Patricia Highsmith Friday's Forgotten Books special was imminent, I figured the least I could do was read the damn thing. And happily, after all the time and effort I put into getting my hands on a first edition (actually not that much effort, but a fair amount of time), I'm pleased to report that it's good. Not quite The Tremor of Forgery or Ripley's Game good, but maybe This Sweet Sickness or The Cry of the Owl good. Bloody good, in other words.

Highsmith's point-of-view character – her sole point-of-view character, unlike Strangers on a Train and The Blunderer (where there are two perspectives), but like The Talented Mr. Ripley and This Sweet Sickness – is Victor Van Allen, a well-to-do small-town small-press publisher in his late thirties, and a cuckold in all but name. Vic's wife, Melinda, has been merrily carrying on with a succession of men while Vic affects an air of studied indifference, seemingly content to breed snails (also a pastime of Highsmith's) and read terribly dull-sounding books about installing stained glass in church windows. But beneath the surface the tension is building: first Vic boasts (untruthfully) to one of Melinda's paramours that he killed a previous beau, and then matters boil over when a party the Van Allens attend ends with Melinda's latest lover, a cocktail bar pianist, floating face down in the swimming pool.

Highsmith's stated aim with Deep Water, as recounted in Andrew Wilson's 2003 biography Beautiful Shadow, was to convey the "sniping, griping, ambushing" of a loveless marriage, the "ballet of the wearing of the nerves", as well as to show how "repressed emotions can become schizophrenic" and "explore the diseases produced by sexual repression". All this she does with aplomb, greatly assisted by adhering doggedly to Vic's viewpoint, forcing us to empathise with him even as we pity him and are eventually appalled by him (a trick she performed previously in Talented and would go on to deploy in three of the four Ripley sequels, among others).

Andrew Wilson notes in Beautiful Shadow that the inhibited, remote Vic "shares quite a few characteristics" with Highsmith's most famous outsider, Tom Ripley, and indeed he does; but Tom never cuts quite so tragic a figure as Vic, even in his more impulsive incarnation in Talented. Tom's goal was to attain the kind of idle, comfortable existence he coveted in Dickie Greenleaf, at which he succeeds; Vic, worn down by his wayward wife, desires nothing more than a quiet life with his sodding snails (or at least thinks he does), and can't even manage that. Both are driven to murder, but though neither displays much in the way of a conscience ("Vic's guilt did not materialize," Highsmith narrates drily), Tom proves rather better at the act than Vic, especially the getting away with it.

Still, as Highsmith retorted when the critic Craig Brown called Vic a weak man, "At least he HAD A GO." It's clear where her sympathies lie: not with flighty, flirtatious Melinda, who suspects her cold fish husband and schemes to bring about his downfall; not with the private detectives she employs, or Don Wilson, the "humourless", "hack" writer of western, detective and romance stories who assists her; not with any of the bores in the Val Allens' stultifying suburban circle; but with Vic; poor, doomed, snail-watching Vic, whose final, furious explosion is an arresting, unforgettable testament to the dangers of bottling up one's feelings.

Head to Patti Nase Abbot's blog this Friday, 27 September, for a bunch more Patricia Highsmith missives, and click here and here for Highsmith bonus posts, and here to visit the newly established Existential Ennui Patricia Highsmith First Edition Book Cover Gallery.

Previous Existential Ennui Patricia Highsmith Posts

The Great Tom Ripley Reread

The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955)
Ripley Under Ground (1970)
Ripley's Game (1974)
The Boy Who Followed Ripley (1980)
Ripley Under Water (1991)
The Ripliad Revisited and Rated

Other Ripley Posts

The Talented Mr. Ripley (1973)
The Tom Ripley Novels

Other Novels

Strangers on a Train (1950) and The Blunderer (1954)
The Price of Salt (1952), alias Carol
A Game for the Living (1958)
This Sweet Sickness (1960)
The Cry of the Owl (1962)
The Two Faces of January (1964)
The Glass Cell (1965)
The Tremor of Forgery (1969)

Short Stories

Little Tales of Misogyny (1977)


Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction (1981 revised edition)

Collecting Highsmith

The Secret Bookshop
Ripley's Claim
New Arrivals
To Arundel and Chichester
Knock knock, it's a New Arrival
Patricia Highsmith Shelf Porn
Patricia Highsmith First Editions, Part 1
Patricia Highsmith First Editions, Part 2
Patricia Highsmith Shelf Porn (Slight Return)

Odds and Sods

I've realised
Looking for the Perfect Bond (and Ripley too)
Ripley's Flicks
Ripley Under Ground Movie Review


  1. I read DEEP WATER long ago. Highsmith had a fascination with water. Tom Ripley frequently dumps the bodies of his victims in water.

  2. He does indeed, George. Dickie Greenleaf (Talented), Murchison (Under Ground) and David and Janice Pritchard (Under Water) all end up in the drink at Tom's hands (indirectly in the case of the last two).

  3. Highsmith is always worth a read even when she is not at her best. I read Deep Water a few years ago and quite liked it:

  4. Thanks for this lovely piece, Nick. I don't think I have read this one but it sounds like a novel I would like.

  5. Jason, ta for the link to your review. And Patti, thank YOU for organising the Highsmith special, and for all your hard work on Friday's Forgotten Books. I look forward to it every week – it's an honour to be a contributor.

  6. Your a true fan and collector of Highsmith, that's certain. I'm afraid I don't share your enthusiasm for her work but I admire your dedication. I'd feel the same way if it were an author I loved, such as Raymond Chandler, in US first with dust jacket (rare as hen's teeth and expensive as airplanes).

  7. Haha, well Chandler's a wee bit pricier in first than Highsmith, Richard, but yeah – it's nice to own British firsts of her work. Now all I need are firsts of Strangers, Blunderer and Talented. (Contributions to the Louis XIV First Edition Benevolence Fund welcome.)

  8. Your collection makes me envious, but then again, I read the hell out of her books, so I'm glad I have paperbacks that I can treat roughly.

    You write so well about Highsmith, and it was your Ripley posts some time back that made me think I should avoid tackling any of her better books. I don't think I could improve.

    I don't think I commented on those posts, but I recall having one up on a tab for a loooooong time, considering how to respond to something you wrote that I thought was particularly insightful. I'll have to go back to them now that I'm more brave.