Monday, June 1, 2015

It ain't the movie, folks: Strangers on a Train, by Patricia Highsmith

Vintage, 1999
272 pp


"And Bruno, he and Bruno. Each was what the other had not chosen to be, the cast-off self, what he thought he hated, but perhaps in reality loved."

Strangers on a Train is another case where most people have seen the movie but haven't read the book or didn't know there was a novel behind it.  In this case, if you've seen the movie, and then go to read Highsmith's book, you end up with two different entities.  The basic plot is the same -- two men, total strangers, meet on a train; one (Bruno) is a psychopath and in conversation things eventually come around to the concept of the "perfect murder." Bruno will get rid of the woman who stands in the way of the other man's (Guy Haines) path to happiness, and Guy in return, will get rid of Bruno's father. Guy has no intention of carrying out his side of Bruno's imaginary bargain, but Bruno kills Guy's wife anyway.   I can see why Hitchcock got involved with this movie -- it seems tailor made for the man.  But this is where movie and novel take different paths. Actually, the book and movie part company very early on. 

There's really no need to rehash the plot of this book since it is so very well known, but it's worth saying that the strength of this novel  is in Highsmith's ability to very quickly bring the reader inside of her characters' heads. The same is true in her Talented Mr. Ripley .  In Strangers on a Train, she examines the very complex relationship between two men, strangers before they had that fateful meeting on the train, but whose lives afterward become inescapably interwined.  The reader sees what drives each man not only individually, but also in the complexity of the ties that bring them  "closer than brotherhood," even when they are not together. The quotation at the beginning of this post, to me, is critical in trying to comprehend this tangled and tortuous relationship (and I could talk forever on the topic  but I'll spare you),  but the true genius of this novel is that most of what creates the tension and suspense in this story plays out in the space of their minds. Sure, there are the physical scenes where Bruno kills Miriam and Guy reciprocates, but even here, you are taken step by step through the entire process of killing as seen through the respective characters' eyes.  As the story progresses and you feel that all-too human need to sympathize with someone, you begin to realize that sympathy becomes an elusive, rather slippery concept in terms of the two main players. 

If I had read Strangers on a Train as my first foray into the mind of Patricia Highsmith, I would have bought every single book she ever wrote just praying that that they'd all be this good.  I had to disagree with someone recently who complained that the book just didn't have enough "action," because frankly, action is not what Highsmith's writing  is all about, a point evidently lost on the person but whatever. Anyone who picks up one of her books should know that she's going to dive right into the psyche and pull out whatever's there for all to see -- and then you're along for the ride as she slowly starts the dissection.  I can't speak highly enough about this book. Highsmith is genuinely in a class of her own.  


  1. I have not read the book yet, or anything else by Highsmith, but I do plan to read it... maybe this year. Great review, you are pushing me to get to it sooner.

    1. I'll be reading many more of her books as time goes on. I'm in love with her writing.


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