The Way of the Word

27. January 2010

Review: Patricia Highsmith – Strangers on a Train

Filed under: books,review — jensaltmann @ 10:14
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Originally published in 1950.

Architect Guy Haines is on a train to a place called Metcalfe, where he wants to meet with his wife Miriam, to discuss their divorce. On the train, me meets Charles Bruno. The two men talk, it turns out that Bruno hates his father. And he has an idea: “I’ll kill your wife for you, and you kill my father for me. Nobody will ever figure it out, because we don’t know each other. We’re just two strangers on a train.” Guy wants nothing to do with this, but Bruno kills Miriam regardless. Afterwards, he keeps piling the pressure on Guy until Guy sees no other way out but to do what Bruno wants, and kills Bruno’s father. The question becomes, can Guy live with the guilt of what he has done?

For me, this began with an episode of Castle, of all things. That episode borrows from Strangers on a train, and one character remarks that this is just like the movie. “I’m kinda partial to the Patricia Highsmith novel,” Castle replies.

Whoa, what? I knew the movie of course, but I had had no idea that it was based on a novel. So I went and got a copy.

It didn’t disappoint. Strangers is Highsmith’s first novel, and it’s very very good. She deftly switches back and forth between the characters of Bruno and Haines, getting deep into their psyches. You have probably heard of the “show, don’t tell” principle. Highsmith doesn’t come out and state that Bruno is a psychopath. Instead, she makes it clear from his thoughts, attitudes and actions. The same goes for Guy Haines. He’s the victim of this story, as Bruno first creates a reality that he then pressures Guy into accepting. Highsmith’s presentation of how Bruno slowly erodes Guy’s resistance to his insane scheme until the murder, and of how the sense of guilt proceeds to destroy him even further afterwards, is chilling.

All I can say is, thank you, Castle. I am definitely not sorry to have read this novel. It’s a fantastic, chilling and thrilling piece of fiction. The novel, by the way, is far superior to Hitchcock’s movie adaptation. (Which is not to say that the movie is bad, far from it. Just — the novel is far better.)

Verdict: very recommended

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