Guest post: Strangers on a Train

Strangers on a Train
Patricia Highsmith
First published in the US, Harper and Brothers, 1950
This edition Vintage Books
ISBN:  0099283077
256 pages

Reviewed by guest blogger, Clothes in Books.

Rich had the idea that he should get someone else to review this book – a stranger, following on from the premise of the book. So that’s me – I blog as Clothes in Books, and Rich has written a couple of entries for me. I hope I don’t have to commit a crime for him…

Strangers on a Train has one of the most perfect concepts in any crime book ever. Two men, Guy and Bruno, meet on a train, they have a few drinks, tell each other their troubles; one has a wife who is playing up over a divorce, the other has a problem with his father and money. One of them, Bruno, suggests in his drunken way that they should ‘swap’ murders, kill each other’s annoyance. Police will never find the murderer, as there is nothing to connect him with the victim, and the other can have a perfect alibi. Guy is made uneasy by this conversation, but dismisses it and goes about his life. Imagine his horror when his wife is murdered soon afterwards – and Bruno did it. Even worse, Bruno wants his reward, and starts pestering Guy to complete his half of the bargain. And Bruno has the resources to get into Guy’s life – he turns up at social events, writes anonymous letters, threatens to spill secrets. He’s also completely deranged and an out-of-control alcoholic. Guy has been freed to marry Anne, his real love, but the price he is going to pay is very high…

Patricia Highsmith is brilliant at tension, and this book is completely gripping: I’ve read it before (a long time ago) and seen the film, but I still was totally, uneasily, engrossed in it. For a first-timer it is a true suspense classic, because you have no idea what is going to happen. It is written with real psychological insight – although written in the 3rd person, alternating sections featuring Guy and Bruno are written with complete control of the POV. It is about as different from a cozy or classic detective story as could be imagined, and it has a strong moral framework. And the relationship that Guy and Bruno are forced into is extremely well-done, very convincing.

The trouble is, for this reader at least, all the characters are fairly repulsive, with few redeeming features. Anne, Guy’s wife, is little more than a cipher. Everyone else is pretty awful. You feel a dreadful sympathy for Guy, and the net he is caught in is not originally of his making, but he is not a nice man. No-one is funny or charming or pleasant. In the end, you either like the kind of world Highsmith creates, or you find it off-putting. This book reminded me why I read many of her books at one time, but also why I eventually decided to stop, not to read any more.

My own particular interest is clothes in books, and Highsmith is very careful and specific about what characters are wearing – she gives brief details, but good enough to paint a picture, and usually making you feel this is, yes, what that character would be wearing. I’ll be featuring an outfit from the book on my own blog soon.

About pastoffences

Past Offences exists to review classic crime and mystery books, with ‘classic’ meaning books originally published before 1987.
This entry was posted in Classic mystery book review, Suspense, Thriller, Witness Statements and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Guest post: Strangers on a Train

  1. Maxine says:

    Great review, I enjoyed the book very much (thought it much better than the film which went for a softer centre), but like you I find Highsmith not of the very best as her characters are unpleasant, if treated in any depth. (A modern writer who is brilliant at unvarnished portraits who yet make the reader empathise with these flawed personalities is Dominque Manotti, as I’ve just rediscovered). I don’t remember the clothes in Strangers, I’m afraid, but I am sure they are more elegant than clothes nowadays.


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