“Mask of the Nice Guy”
by K. A. Laity
If you know much of anything about Patricia Highsmith, you probably know her love for snails. Okay, maybe it’s not the first thing you learn, but it should be. It tells you so much about her. Smuggling them through customs in her bra—the thought of it makes me want to boak even now. She has several stories that feature them, even one where they are giant-sized and man-eating. Sure, she liked cats, too, but she never had the same affection for them that she did with her snails.
In her novel Deep Water, they are the beloved pets and keenly-observed obsession of the main character, Victor Van Allen. In the whole of her novels and short stories I think the only tender love scene Highsmith wrote is about the snail coupling that takes place in this book between his two favourite gastropods. He gives them conventional male and female names, though one of the things that most intrigues Highsmith is the fact that snails can morph their sex almost at will.
Hortense and Edgar were making love, Edgar reaching down from a little rock to kiss Hortense on the mouth. Hortense was reared on the end of her foot, swaying a little under his caress like a slow dancer enchanted by music. Vic watched for perhaps five minutes, thinking of absolutely nothing, not even of the snails, until he saw the cup-shaped excrescences start to appear on the right side of both snails’ heads. How they did adore each other, and how perfect they were together!
Vic is a strange fellow, admittedly not unusual for Highsmith, but his success despite this strangeness is. He first poses as a murderer, then becomes one. He gets a thrill from starting a rumour that he had something to do with his wife’s (probable) lover who suddenly disappeared then is found brutally beaten to death. He tells her new conquest, “I don’t waste my time punching people on the nose. If I really don’t like somebody, I kill him.” Vic has been telling himself he handles everything fine. His wife can’t face his oddness directly so she takes up with new men, hoping they’ll sort things for her somehow. Highsmith wrote this novel in the Berkshires and there is something so authentically New England-ish about Vic’s ability to hide his nastiness in plain sight. It’s the closest Highsmith ever comes to treading on Shirley Jackson country.
Vic finds power in pretending to be a murderer. He realises his calm has discomfited the new lover, and that “Vic had frightened him” and further understands how his own uncanny nature makes that work: “People who do not behave in an orthodox manner…are by definition frightening.” Highsmith learned that lesson over and over if her diaries are any indication. But it’s only at this intimate level that Vic’s strangeness can be seen.
To his neighbours and colleagues, he does all the right things: runs a fine art small press, keeps a nice home (though most don’t know that he lives in the workshop in the garage and not in the master bedroom), has patience in the face of his wife’s flirting, and is a kindly dad to his daughter. People like him and disapprove of Melinda, who’s seen as a bad wife. Her flagrant peccadilloes insult their sense of propriety.
When Vic does actually kill her latest lover on a whim, in a fairly obvious way, not one person suspects him (well, maybe his wife). The police who rightly think it’s a bit odd are quickly dissuaded by all the neighbours who vouch for this upstanding-quiet-man-who-keeps to himself Vic. They double down on their disapproval of Melinda, too. She brought trouble to their quiet town after all. For a time she is contrite, or at least seems to be.
But then a mystery novelist comes to town and makes friends with Melinda. It’s fascinating that Highsmith makes this crime writer unlikable. “People in Little Wesley had not been particularly friendly to the Wilsons since their arrival, and Vic thought it was Don’s fault. He was humourless and standoffish at social gatherings, perhaps because he considered smiles and conviviality unintelligent or unbecoming in a writer.” Highsmith is having some fun with her own image here, perhaps—or knowing her habits, based it on another writer. She’s well aware of the scorn for the genre. It seems fitting that Vic publishes poets and important things. “[Don Wilson] was such a hack—western stories, detective stories, love stories, some of which his wife collaborated on, though Vic had heard from somebody that her specialty was children’s books. The Wilsons had no children.” While it’s not at all uncommon, Vic’s observation reads like an indictment.
Former comic book writer Pat never much reconciled herself with that past. She was quite a snob about things and hated being seen as a niche genre writer. The young Pat of the diaries constantly works to “improve” her mind and her savoir faire. Some of that ambivalence comes through. Yet who unravels the next murder Vic commits? He is fatally devoted to inflating his own ego. Part of it is simply his arrogance. It’s not enough to plan the murder; he needs to gloat over it with his wife nearby.
At one point as they argue and he baits her with a dare to kill him, Melinda says, “You’re so—nuts! I don’t suppose you’d mind that very much. I’d like to smash your lousy ego.” He explains to her with great patience, “‘No, not ego. Just the pieces of myself that I can put together 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.” He is completely blind to his own strangeness.
So uncanny and he doesn’t even see it, but neither do his neighbours and friends. They all see the mask as real. Right down to the end, Vic retains a belief in his superiority, dismissing Wilson and all the rest who plague him as “ugly birds without wings” and mediocrities. Such a nice guy.
K.A. Laity is the author of the novels White Rabbit, Knight of the White Hart, A Cut-Throat Business, Lush Situation, Owl Stretching, Pelzmantel, The Mangrove Legacy, Chastity Flame, and the collections Unquiet Dreams and Dream Book, as well as editor of My Wandering Uterus, How to Be Dull, Respectable Horror, Weird Noir, Noir Carnival, and Drag Noir. A tenured professor, Dr. Laity teaches medieval literature, film, gender studies, digital humanities and popular culture; she is also the director of the Digital Humanities Initiative. For more information, visit www.kalaity.com