Strangers on a Train was Patricia Highsmith’s first novel, and deservedly received a good deal of attention (although never as much as one might expect in her native United States) and is admired as one of her finest. It’s a quietly frightening story about two men, strangers, who meet on a train, and find that each has a person in his life who he would rather were not. Guy Haines wishes he were rid of his adulterous and manipulative (and estranged) wife Miriam, so that he might marry the lovely and wealthy Anne. Charles Bruno hates his father, who limits Bruno’s access to his own money. It is Bruno’s idea that they could trade murders: each could have an alibi for his own acquaintance, and would never be suspected in the murder of the other’s, because there would be no detectable motive. Guy is disgusted by Bruno and his concept, and leaves the train without saying goodbye.
Bruno proceeds to murder Miriam without his consent. Guy suspects it may have been Bruno but can hardly believe in such a strange action on the part of a stranger. And then he begins to hear from Bruno. Guy’s relationship with Anne, and his work as an increasingly acclaimed architect, both suffer as he feels guilt for his involvement in Miriam’s death; and Bruno’s harassment increases, as he now feels Guy owes him the returned favor of killing Bruno’s father. Put very simply, Bruno succeeds in driving Guy a little crazy, until he carries out the murder; but they don’t get away with the second as easily as they do the first, essentially because Bruno (clearly a psychopath, and a raging drunk to boot) can’t leave Guy alone. He’s obsessed. I will interject here that I think the “perfect crime” conceived by Bruno would have worked if he could have remained a stranger to Guy; but he can’t. I will lay off the spoilers here, mostly, and tell you that they both meet unpleasant ends, in rather different manners.
The structure of the book is worth noting. The early tension of the two strangers’ meeting, and Bruno’s excited murder of Miriam, go by rather quickly. And the final action that resolves the fates of Guy and Bruno also happens in a rush. The middle section of the book is all interior: we see some of Bruno’s thought processes and degeneration, but him being the psychopath makes him rather less interesting than Guy, who was an essentially good and “normal” person when we met him on page 1. Most of the psychological drama takes place inside Guy’s head, where much more change takes place, and he goes slowly… crazy? Or, to look at it another way, slowly gives in to some nasty impulses. I’m rather in the first camp, but I think there’s room for debate.
Highsmith has done a fine job here of what I believe she set out to do: she creates a creepy-crawly atmosphere of fear that the worst lies within each of us, that we don’t really know our friends or family like we think we do, that the worst is only an obnoxious phone call or two away. The inside of Bruno’s head is a nasty place to be, but it’s Guy’s inner workings that are truly frightening. It is a very effectively executed novel.
That said, it won’t be for everyone. Even as I found myself admiring Highsmith’s craft, and riveted to the page, I was not always entirely enthused. For one thing, the extended psych-drama of the lengthy middle section of the book was a little slow-paced for me. And while she does an excellent job of putting me inside that scary brain of Guy’s, I’m not so sure that I wanted to be there. Thus, call this a well-executed novel that I did not really want. And part of that is Highsmith’s victory and (perhaps) her intention: to make her reader uncomfortable. But I think part of that, too, is just that psych thrillers are not my favorite things.
Exquisitely done, but not my cup of tea. Still interested in The Talented Mr. Ripley; and the Hitchcock movie version of this one.