Originally Published 1950
The world of Patricia Highsmith has always been filled with ordinary people, all of whom are capable of very ordinary crimes. This theme was present from the beginning, when her debut, Strangers on a Train, galvanized the reading public. Here we encounter Guy Haines and Charles Anthony Bruno, passengers on the same train. But while Guy is a successful architect in the midst of a divorce, Bruno turns out to be a sadistic psychopath who manipulates Guy into swapping murders with him. “Some people are better off dead,” Bruno remarks, “like your wife and my father, for instance.” As Bruno carries out his twisted plan, Guy is trapped in Highsmith’s perilous world, where, under the right circumstances, anybody is capable of murder.
Most of the time on this blog I write from the perspective of someone who is encountering a story for the first time. In those few instances where I have revisited a book, I have done so many years after reading it for the first time which helps me to approach it fresh.
Strangers on a Train is a very different case. It is a book I have read three times in the space of four years having previously seen the Hitchcock film adaptation a number of times. It is possible that this review may read a little differently than many of my others as a result.
Each time I have read this book I have done so from a slightly different perspective. The first time I recall looking for the differences between the movie and its source material. The second, I was looking at in a more structural sense, looking to understand Highsmith’s themes and perspective on her characters. What motivated this third look at the book, other than the desire to simply enjoy it once again, was to see whether I would consider it to be an inverted mystery or if it is something else.
Before I start to discuss that question and the book’s themes, I need to describe what it is about. The book concerns a meeting on a train between two men and the way that meeting affects their lives. One, Guy Haines, is a celebrated architect trapped in a marriage to his unfaithful wife Miriam while the other, Charles Bruno, is a playboy who is doted on by his mother and feels deeply resentful of his stepfather for controlling his allowance.
During the journey Bruno proposes that the pair exchange murders, each committing a crime to which they have no obvious personal tie. While Guy does not really take Bruno seriously, a while afterwards he receives letters from Bruno reminding him of this plan. When Miriam is murdered he does not go to the police and tells himself that it is coincidence. Some weeks pass and then Bruno starts to contact him, pressuring him to fulfil his end of the bargain.
If you have seen the famous movie version of this story be aware that the stories diverge after this point leading to decidedly different conclusions and developing somewhat different themes. What remains constant is the toxic relationship between Guy and Bruno which in the book has hints of homoeroticism (the film is far more overt) and a murder plot that, were it not for Bruno’s obsessive behavior towards Guy, would be almost certain to work.
We see the danger early in the novel, even when Guy is oblivious to it, because we can see that Bruno feels bound to Guy and that once that murder is committed that bond becomes even the stronger. From that moment Guy is the only person who can really understand Bruno and the guilt that eats away at him only leads to him indulging more heavily in his self-destructive vices.
Raymond Chandler apparently considered this novel to be ‘a silly little story’ which boggles my mind. Certainly the idea of the murder swap could be treated as little more than a colorful story hook but Highsmith does not use it that way, instead developing the idea that Guy becomes trapped by his inaction and compelled into following a particular course. To me it is really rich in character and theme and develops its plot with a powerful predictability where the reader can see where the tale is ultimately headed, even if they are not sure how it will get there.
I find both characters to be interesting in their own right though they become compelling in combination. Guy is cautious, practical and sturdy while Bruno dreams and seeks to find something that will give him a sense of happiness and fulfilment. One of my favorite passages in the book relates to one of Bruno’s ambitions for how he might spend his money by giving away a sizeable sum to a random beggar. He has developed a romantic image of a way in which he can achieve a sense of personal satisfaction and yet the reality of human nature turns it grubby and disappointing. In fact I would suggest that Bruno is happier imagining his stepfather dead than he is at any point once he begins to enact his plan.
With so much of a focus falling on Guy and Bruno, it is perhaps inevitable that the other characters feel far less dimensional. Only Guy’s girlfriend (and later wife) Anne comes off as a fully realized character though I felt a little disappointed that Highsmith does not directly address her situation at the end of the novel or allow her to play a more direct role in the conclusion. In spite of this I found her to be very sympathetic and I did appreciate that she is presented as a professional woman in her own right. It was easy to see why Guy so desperately wants to be with her.
I mentioned in my introduction that part of my motivation in revisiting this book now was to consider whether it is an inverted mystery. I think, on balance, that it is although I would say that because there is a sense of forces inexorably pushing the characters towards an outcome that there are few developments in the narrative that are truly surprising. Nor does Gerrard, the Bruno family’s private detective, really exercise much deductive reasoning during his investigation and, in any case, we spend surprisingly little time with him.
In spite of that however the reader can engage with the story by pondering what evidence might exist and how it may be interpreted. There is even the question of how the relationship between Guy and Bruno will be resolved. As much as I love the movie version of this story, I think the book takes a more interesting and subtle approach to the latter and while I wish that the ending had struck a slightly different tone in places, I think it very effectively resolves the main themes of the novel.
While Highsmith’s text is sometimes a little ponderous, particularly during Bruno’s drunken outbursts, I am impressed by how polished it feels considering it is a first novel and I do think that those moments fit the character even if they drag on a little. I am particularly struck by how well she captures a sense of paranoia and the different ways that guilt can affect a person, making the reader feel Guy’s hopelessness at being trapped in a situation that threatens to destroy him completely.
I said earlier in this review that it is rare for me to revisit a book. It is even rarer for me to get more out of it on subsequent reads. That I have found it a rewarding enough experience to revisit it twice now speaks to the book’s striking premise, bold characterization and interesting discussion of guilt and justice. The only thing that is likely to keep me from revisiting it any time soon is the sense that I should probably try reading another Highsmith at some point…