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Saturday, 1 June 2013

Strangers On A Train by Patricia Highsmith

Way back in January when I started my Literary Exploration Challenge I read Dashiell Hammett's hard-boiled classic, The Maltese Falcon. I enjoyed the book but remarked upon it's overwhelming air of masculinity, and frankly, misogyny. Looking forward to my noir choice I thought it would be interesting to choose something by a female author for contrast, but had no idea who to choose. Then a few weeks ago the perfect name popped into my head. Who better than Patricia Highsmith? The Talented Mr Ripley is one of my all-time favourite novels. I adore her writing and have been meaning to read something else by Highsmith for ages.

I haven't seen the famous Hitchcock adaptation of this book (who knows why, because I love Hitchcock films) but I always thought I knew exactly what the story was about. Two strangers meet on a train and agree to 'swap' victims, allowing each of them to get away with the perfect murder, right? But actually, the novel runs much deeper than that.

Guy Haines finds himself in a situation that any regular user of public transport will be familiar with. He is on a train going to visit his estranged wife in order to plan their divorce, wanting a quiet journey to be alone with his thoughts, and an irritating stranger in the same carriage persists in trying to make small talk. The present-day solution would be to jam your iPod headphones in place and pretend to be asleep, but unfortunately back then this wasn't an option and so our mild-mannered, polite protagonist is forced to engage Charles Bruno in conversation. As the train makes its way across the country it becomes clear that Bruno is a bit of an oddball, to say the least, and when he proposes his crazy scheme Guy dismisses it as a tasteless joke:

"What an idea! We murder for each other, see? I kill your wife and you kill my father! We meet on a train, see, and nobody knows we know each other! Perfect alibis! Catch?"

But a few weeks later when he hears of his wife's death at the hands of an unidentified strangler, Guy's mind goes back to that throwaway conversation. Surely this weirdo wouldn't have gone through with his plan?

I find it strange that Patricia Highsmith is often labelled as an author of crime thrillers or mystery novels. While I love crime fiction and believe that there are few literary achievements greater than plotting a perfect mystery novel, I feel that this is doing her a disservice somehow. The crime itself often takes a back seat in her writing. What Strangers On A Train really focuses on is the inner turmoil of the two main characters - her understanding of psychology is second to none. I can think of few novelists who do madness anywhere near as well as Highsmith. I love the way her tight, precise prose can depict such a disordered mental state. And in this book we see two quite distinct types of madness. On one hand you have Bruno, the obsessive stalker, the psychopath, the misogynist, quite probably schizophrenic:

“But there were too many points at which the other self could invade the self he wanted to preserve, and there were too many forms of invasion: certain words, sounds, lights, actions his hands or feet performed, and if he did nothing at all, heard and saw nothing, the shouting of some triumphant inner voice that shocked him and cowed him.” 

And on the other hand there is Guy, the ordinary man on the street who is pulled into a web of deceit and ends up incessantly tormented by remorse and shame. You can't help feeling for him and pleading him to move on and be happy with his new wife. It is clear to the reader that his own emotions will be the cause of his undoing if he can't keep them in check. You are left feeling like anybody at all could be manipulated into commiting murder under the right circumstances.

I have read a few reviews on Goodreads that compare this book to the Hitchcock film and do so unfavourably, saying that the novel lacks the suspense and thrill of the movie and meanders too much. Now as I said earlier, I haven't seen the film and while I fully expect Hitchcock to have done a sterling job, I imagine he must have had to make a multitude of changes from the original text. There's an awful lot in this book that just wouldn't transfer very well to the big screen. So much of its power comes from inner dialogue. I think that to compare the two versions too closely is to miss the point a bit. Look at Strangers On A Train as a psychological thriller rather than a straight mystery and you will appreciate it much more.

So now I'm off into town on the bus. Bag on the seat next to me, headphones in ears, nose in a book - don't think I'll be in the mood for chatting with fellow passengers for a while now!


  1. This a great review. I have been thinking about reading this book for quite a while, but not quite having the nerve too. Psychological suspense sometimes is too much for me (like some of Ruth Rendell's novels). And I have seen the movie. You have convinced it would be worth my while to read.

    Now I want to understand the difference between hard-boiled and noir. Back to my mystery reference books.

  2. Great review Marie. I've seen the film but not read the book but you've certainly encouraged me to do so. The film is actually very creepy with great dialogue which I suspect has been lifted from the book. Highsmith really is a genius.

  3. I haven't read the book but I loved the film! Glad you liked the book.

  4. I still haven't read this Patricia Highsmith novel, I really need to do that. I love Patricia Highsmith's stuff

  5. Graet review! Highsmith's novels are always brilliant, but this one is probably one of her best.