Mask of the Nice Guy by K. A. Laity

International Noir, K A Laity, Patricia Highsmith, Punk Noir Magazine, Writing

deep water

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/keenly-observed obsession of the main character, Victor Van Allen. Highsmith’s only tender love scene that I can think of in all her writing is about the snail coupling that takes place in this book between his two favourites. 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! 

[Spoilers here on in]

Vic 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 murdered. He tells her new fave, ‘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.

But Vic finds power in pretending to be a murderer. He realises his calm has discomfited the new lover, and further 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.’ 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 the house itself), 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.

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 the upstanding-quiet-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.

But then a mystery novelist comes to town and makes friends with Melinda. ‘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 smile and conviviality unintelligent or unbecoming in a writer.’ Highsmith having some fun with her own image here, perhaps. Also 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.’

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. Some of that ambivalence comes through. Yet who unravels the next murder Vic commits? 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, she 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.’

So uncanny and he doesn’t even see it, but neither do his neighbours and friends. They all see the mask as real. Such a nice guy. Right down to the end, Vic retains a belief in his superiority, dismissing Wilson and all the rest as ‘ugly birds without wings’ and mediocrities