Literary Corner Cafe

Friday, February 11, 2011

Book Review - Classics - Strangers On a Train by Patricia Highsmith

Strangers On a Train by Patricia Highsmith is a book that’s far too often neglected today. In fact, it’s so neglected that many people don’t even know it is a book. For this, of course, I blame Alfred Hitchcock - more or less. His film adaptation was so brilliantly done (though in some significant ways, very different from the book) that people interested in Strangers On a Train simply watch the film rather than read the book. I should know. I was once one of them. The book is so good, however, that I think people should do both.

Strangers On a Train is the story of architect, Guy Haines and wealthy sociopath, Charles Bruno. The two meet on a train as Guy is heading home to ask his wife Miriam for a divorce so he can marry the spoiled, rich and self-centered socialite, Anne Morton. Miriam hasn’t consented to a divorce in the past, but this time Guy has grounds...Miriam is pregnant and Guy’s definitely not the father. Still, Guy thinks she’ll cause all the problems and delays she can and, when he confides in Bruno, Bruno comes up with a bizarre plan. If Guy will kill Bruno’s father, who is an innocent old man, but a source of misery to Bruno, Bruno will, in turn, murder Miriam, clearing the way for Guy to marry Anne.

Guy isn’t the greatest and most upstanding fellow in the world, but he’s not a cold-blooded murderer, either and he’s shocked at Bruno’s proposal. He dismisses it and gets off the train, thinking that he’ll never see Charles Bruno again. But, lo and behold, it isn’t long until Miriam is found murdered and, of course, Guy knows who’s responsible. Now, Bruno wants Guy to carry out his part of Bruno’s plan. In fact, he’s going to insist on it, and insist he can. Guy, it would seem, is in a little bit of a bind.

The rest of Strangers On a Train is a delicious game of cat-and-mouse during which Guy tries desperately to beat Bruno at his own game. Highsmith, however, didn’t write novels that were plot-driven only. Strangers On a Train is just as much about character as it is about plot. There really isn’t anyone likable in the whole book. Miriam was so nasty, we don’t care that Guy murdered her; Bruno is totally deranged; Anne is the coldest fish I’ve ever come across; and Guy, well, morally, Guy can’t be said to be without blame despite the fact that he rejected Bruno’s initial offer. He’s happy Miriam is dead; he just doesn’t want to be implicated in her murder.

While Guy and Anne are engaged (this despite the fact the Guy is, at least until Bruno enters the picture, married), Strangers On a Train is certainly no love story. It really is almost entirely devoid of romance. Anne Morton is the type of woman who wants to make a “good match” and, whether she loves the man involved plays little to no importance. Guy isn’t all that much in love with Anne, either. He has his sights set on his career and Anne’s father is very influential. But, if Guy becomes implicated in Miriam’s murder, well, he can just kiss his own ambitions - and Anne - goodbye.

While the relationship between Guy and Anne isn’t all that interesting, the relationship between Guy and Bruno is, and as the novel progresses, their relationship becomes more and more complex and ambiguous. Eventually:

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

This sentence is really the key to understanding Strangers On a Train.

Bruno obviously has plenty of problems and these problems extend into the sexual arena as well. While Highsmith hints at a sexual relationship, or at least a sexual attraction between Guy and Bruno, it isn’t a healthy one on the part of Bruno. The man is too deranged to engage in anything healthy and his strange relationship with his parents, especially with his mother, precludes him from developing either healthy hetero- or homosexual relationships. Still, the dynamics between Guy and Bruno are fascinating, especially as we witness Guy’s emotional and moral deterioration. Some may see him as a victim; I did not. Guy is perfectly sane, and as such, must be held responsible for his actions.

The writing in Strangers On a Train is taut and suspenseful, so suspenseful that it’s hard to put the book down even to sleep. The scene in which Bruno murders Miriam is especially suspenseful, and even though we know what’s coming, we’re really not prepared for it:

His hands captured her throat on the last word, stifling its abortive uplift of surprise. He shook her. His body seemed to harden like rock, and he heard his teeth crack. She made a grating sound in her throat, but he had her too tight for a scream. With a leg behind her, he wrenched her backward, and they fell to the ground together with no sound but of a brush of leaves. He sunk his fingers deeper, enduring the distasteful pressure of her body under his so her writhing would not get them both up. Her throat felt hotter and fatter. Stop, stop, stop! He willed it! And the head stopped turning. He was sure he had held her long enough, but he did not lessen his grip. Glancing behind him, he saw nothing coming. When he relaxed his fingers, it felt as if he had made deep dents in her throat as in a piece of dough. Then she made a sound like an ordinary cough that terrified him like the rising dead, and he fell on her again, hitched himself onto his knees to do it, pressing her with a force he thought would break his thumbs. All the power in him he poured out through his hands. And if it was not enough? He heard himself whimper. She was still and limp now.

This is classic Patricia Highsmith and classic noir fiction. The pacing is fast and wonderful as Highsmith stacks complication on complication, pulling the reader in and ratcheting up the suspense. If you’ve seen the film, but haven’t read the book, I think you’ll be both surprised and pleased with Strangers On a Train. Although the beginning of the film remained true to the book, the middle and end differ in many ways and I can’t really say which is best although I don’t think it will spoil the book for you by telling you that it’s far darker than the film. In some ways, I prefer the film, but in other ways, I prefer the book. I do think the ending is sadder and more emotional in the book. There’s more ambiguity in the ending offered by the book, something I really liked.

This is a very interior book and much of the suspense takes place inside the mind of Guy and inside the mind of Bruno. Will he? Won’t he? What will happen next? While Highsmith keeps us in suspense (and biting our nails), she never withholds information from her readers. We know what Guy and Bruno know and, really, this is enough. This book is so good that there’s no need for surprise endings or “twists.”

Despite its age, Strangers On a Train remains crisp, taut and dark. I think it’s noir fiction at its finest.


Recommended: Absolutely, especially to those who like mysteries or noir fiction.


Annie said...

I couldn't agree more with this. Highsmith is not valued as she deserves to be and this novel is just chilling. I think you make a very good point about the film being better in some ways and worse in others. What is more, it's a very interesting point, because so often there is little that is good to say about a film adaptation. There are, of course, exceptions. I've just been listening to a review of the remake of 'Brighton Rock', which is being panned. It doesn't matter. I wouldn't have gone to see it anyway so perfect was the Attenborough original.

Gabrielle Renoir-Large said...
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