Patricia Highsmith: Strangers on a Train

Strangers_on_a_TrainWe’ve covered Strangers on a Train previously on Past Offences. New-friend-of-the-blog Moira from Clothes in Books reviewed as a guest post back in 2012. I’d forgotten how we set it up:

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…

High-concept reviews – must try to think of another way to do one of those.

However, I’m determined to complete my CWA top 100 challenge this year and that meant buckling down to review Strangers myself. Not that that’s a chore – it’s one of my favourite suspense novels, although I had to resort to Abebooks to get myself a copy.

The set-up is well-known. Two men get talking on a train.

Guy Haines is an up-and-coming architect with a beautiful girlfriend, on his way south to start a prestigious project in Palm Beach. There is only one fly in his ointment – a wife he hates in his home town of Metcalf Texas, and who is pregnant with another man’s child.

Charles Anthony Bruno is a wealthy wastrel with an obsessive love of his mother and hatred of his father, ‘the Captain’. If he was out of the way, Bruno’s life would be perfect. And Bruno is crafty enough to devise a plan. Why don’t he and Guy swap murders? It would solve both their problems and would appear to be two motiveless and unconnected crimes. Two perfect murders.

Guy doesn’t agree, but Bruno goes ahead with the plan anyway. The crime, of course, is not quite perfect, and the roots of its imperfection lie with Bruno. Bruno shares a certain creepiness with Highsmith’s anti-hero Tom Ripley. He develops an obsessional over-identification with Guy, as Ripley does with his more talented friend Dickie Greenleaf. Amongst his other faults Bruno is a stalker – pestering letters, unwanted phone calls, gifts, pretended closeness.

‘Some day Guy and I are going to circle the world like an isinglass ball, and tie it up in a ribbon!’

He just can’t leave Guy alone, which of course creates evidence of their association.

Both Bruno and Guy unravel during the course of the book. The two men start as opposites. Clean-cut versus drunk. Self-made man versus spoilt child. Hard working professional versus dilettante. But as the story progresses, Highsmith draws them closer together. Both men are aware of this. Guy’s thesis is that everybody has the potential to become either good or evil.

Love and hate, he thought now, good and evil, lived side by side in the human heart, and not merely in differing proportions in one man and the next, but all good and all evil. One merely had to look for a little of either to find it all.

However, I think they were both simply wrong’uns to begin with. Guy’s no nice guy. Early on he shows how deeply he can hate when he tells his girlfriend about his ex-wife:

‘She’s everything that should be loathed,’ he went on, staring in front of him. ‘Sometimes I think I hate everything in the world. No decency, no conscience. She’s what people mean when they say America never grows up, America rewards the corrupt. She’s the type who goes to the bad movies, acts in them, reads the love-story magazines, lives in a bungalow, and whips her husband into earning more money this year so they can buy on the instalment plan next year, breaks up her neighbour’s marriage – ‘

Strangers on a Train is my second #1950book for Crimes of the Century. Guy at least strikes me as a very 1950 character. Ambition, hard work, a sense of making up for time and opportunities lost in the War (although this is only hinted at), plus a very modernist aesthetic to his architecture.

Anyway, a suspenseful and atmospheric story told in Highsmith’s coldly factual style – please do read this if you haven’t already.

Patricia Highsmith
Strangers on a Train
First published in the US by Harper & Brothers, 1950
This edition Penguin Books, 1974
ISBN: 9780140037968
Pages: 254
Source: Abebooks
Final destination: A keeper

See also:

Yet Another Crime Fiction BlogStrangers on a Train checked all the boxes for me in characterization, suspense, pacing and dialogue. It was also emotionally draining and I haven’t even begun to explore all the themes in this story. Highsmith explores all the struggles of a man trying to weather the storm of a guilty conscience. All of it made for a gripping read. Would I recommend this story? Yes! Yes! Yes! To everyone who enjoys psychological suspense that tends to dwell on the dark side.

A Crime is Afoot: The novel is based on the idea that anyone, under the right circumstances, can commit murder; and in the assumption that for the existence of two opposite concepts, each one requires of the existence of the other. In fact, two opposites are just two sides of the same coin, two aspects of the same thing. Take the concepts of good and evil, for example, each one can only exist thanks to the existence of the other, they cannot exist without each other. In this sense Guy can not exist without Bruno. And it’s on this issues, on which Patricia Highsmith developed most of her novels.

The View from the Blue House: Highsmith neatly manoeuvres the pieces into place, binding the two strangers together, and then ratchets up the psychological tension first with respect to the murders, then the fear of being discovered and the fear of each other as their lives become ever more entwined.  It’s a nicely put together tale, though some of the plot devices are quite weak, such as Guy giving up an important commission.  My main issue, however, was the characterization.  Charles is somewhat one-dimensional and Guy just seems to act as a foil for Charles and the plot.  Nonetheless it has an interesting hook, is an engaging story, and it’s obvious why it appealed to Hitchcock for a movie adaptation.

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Past Offences exists to review classic crime and mystery books, with ‘classic’ meaning books originally published before 1987.
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6 Responses to Patricia Highsmith: Strangers on a Train

  1. bkfriedman says:

    Great review, Rich (and I can’t wait to read the others you’ve linked to. I can’t believe that I have seen the movie a hundred times – I even teach it – and STILL haven’t read the book, which sounds even darker and nastier, particularly where Guy is concerned! Thanks for tempting me with yet ANOTHER book to read! Brad 🙂


  2. I have such fond memories of our review-swap Rich – it was a brilliant idea of yours, and was also one of my first steps into the happy world of crime fiction fans and online friends in the genre. I was quite a new blogger at the time, and it was an exciting departure for me. At the time we said ‘oh we’ll do this again’ and we really should. I’d love to think what other high-concept guest-posting you could think of….
    And, good book good film. Very clever all round.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: ‘A mud fight at a village fair’: #1950book results | Past Offences: Classic crime, thrillers and mystery book reviews

  4. Pingback: Best Offences: My favourite crime reads of 2016 | Past Offences: Classic crime, thrillers and mystery book reviews

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