Patricia Highsmith and empathy for the sociopath  

Patricia Highsmith seems generally under-rated these days – the people who know of Ripley seem to think of either Alien or Matt Damon in the film version. Her skill with the insidious and slow burning psychological suspense story is perhaps out of fashion now, given the current trend for novels that are fast paced and full of action. I lost count of the agents who told me my second novel started too slowly, even with one murder hinted at in the first paragaph, and another at the end of the first chapter.

Gillian Flynn, writer of Gone Girl (and debut novel Sharp Objects, which in some ways I prefer) is a Highsmith fan. I read this article from the Wall Street Journal, where Flynn is talking about Highsmith’s Deep Water, and realised it was one I hadn’t read – even though I love Highsmith – from Strangers on a Train, through the Tom Ripley series, The Cry of the Owl (another slow and creepy story about the relationship between a stalker and his victim, or…). I even enjoyed – if that is the right word, her collection of very creepy short stories, Little Tales of Misogyny.

So this week I rectified that omission – and smiled to see the current edition of Deep Water has Gillian Flynn’s recommendation on the cover…  Strange times.

Like Gone Girl, Deep Water is a story about an unhappy marriage. In Gone Girl, the story is told in turn by Nick and the Amazing Amy, neither of whom turn out to be appealing, likeable characters.  The structure of Deep Water is different, and the story of Vic and Melinda is told in the third person – but Highsmith sticks very closely to Vic’s point of view, and we see everything from his perspective.

Although the story unfolds very slowly and there’s no mystery about what happens – we are, after all, seeing exactly what Vic does throughout, I found it totally impossible to put the book down. Highsmith creates a very claustrophobic world. It was only at the very end of the novel, when I paused to draw breath, that I realised I had been drawn in to Vic’s mind to the extent that I wanted him to literally get away with murder….all the way until he was carted off by the police. I had been pleased when he’d escaped detection. I had disliked the characters who, quite rightly, suspected that he was a murderer. Even though I knew he was.

How did Highsmith accomplish this?

In a way all novelists are manipulating readers – perhaps the splinter of ice Graham Greene said was in the heart of every writer is the source of Highsmith’s ability to persuade us to empathise with a sociopath.

It helps, I think, that Melinda is not a very sympathetic character. We only see her from Vic’s point of view, of course, but somehow we are persuaded to believe he might be right. First, we see she is, at the very least, a flirt. She publicly spends lots of time with a succession of other men, and Vic patiently puts up with it… We see his friends sympathise with him, and encourage him to put his foot down. He also tells us she’s a lousy mother – from making too much fuss when giving birth, to neglecting their daughter throughout the story. We see Vic spending time with his daughter, so perhaps are inclined to believe him a little too easily. Vic has created his own haven in the home – they don’t share a bedroom any more, and he has his retreat in the garage where he raises snails, and herbs, and does experiments with bedbugs… Later, after Vic has murdered one of Melinda’s lovers, she employs detectives and spends time with a man who dislikes Vic – and somehow we see this as yet another marital betrayal.

In addition there are aspects of Vic that are sympathetic. He is a popular member of the small town where he lives – the few people who seem not like him seem to be outsiders. He works as a publisher, and clearly enjoys doing good work. He is a good and generous employer. And he does seem very patient with Melinda’s indiscretions. His interest in the snails – and particularly the love life of his two favourites – seems very sad considering the coldness of his own home life.  He does genuinely seem to care for his daughter – although there are glimpses perhaps of the sociopath in her too- perhaps she is her father’s daughter. She seems to want him to be a murderer – or that is how Vic sees it.

And yet…. we are warned at the very beginning that Vic is not without flaws.  The novel starts with him telling us that he doesn’t dance – not because he can’t – but because his wife loves to dance. Later in the novel we see him dancing with female friends in order to punish her…but by then, we have been persuaded that she deserves his punishment. His friend, Horace, is always telling Vic he should be firmer with her. But just like Vic’s friends, we are lulled into trusting Vic. The story starts so slowly and we see Vic suffering as Melinda flirts with one man, then another. And to begin with it doesn’t seem so dangerous – one of her previous flirts and has been murdered and Vic merely pretends he was the killer. He takes delight in using the fantasy to scare off her current flirt.  And we enjoy him getting away with that – as we’ve become accustomed to see him as the underdog. As he sees himself…
And yet that’s not really a true picture, is it? He’s a rich man, with an independent income and work he enjoys, respected in his community. He’s not an underdog – he’s enjoying a perverse kind of power over his wife. From denying her the pleasure of dancing – to his passive aggressive and inauthentic response to her flirtations.

To quote Flynn, Highsmith “doesn’t give anything away. She does not do your work for you. She gives you all the information. She’s a very precise writer. You picture her using an eye dropper to put each word on the page. Everything is very specifically put in place, but she makes you do a lot of wonderful homework in having to think about her characters and put yourself in their positions and try to figure them out a little bit.”

There’s an absence of emotion in Vic’s story. At one point we are told that he doesn’t feel guilt – but he doesn’t really seem to feel anything – except perhaps for the snails.

So perhaps that’s how it works. We have our own theories of mind – we as readers do a lot of the heavy lifting in a Highsmith novel. We project our own emotions on to Vic, and make assumption about how he must feel. That’s how narcissists and sociopaths work on us, after all. We make excuses for their behaviour, just as we do for Vic’s. Just as his friends do. We are all fooled because we want to believe that other human beings are just like us. Even though in several places Vic quite explicitly says he’s not like other people. He’s not a conformist.

We do all like non-conformity, don’t we?

I can’t help pondering on the fact that Highsmith herself kept snails….  Perhaps the key to why I empathised with Vic is that Highsmith herself is on his side.

I think it’s time I re-read Highsmith’s book on Writing and Plotting Suspense Fiction.

Ann