Strangers on a Train, by Patricia Highsmith
Strangers on a Train is one of my favourite Hitchcock movies. Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley is one of the finest psychological thrillers I’ve read. Patricia Highsmith’s original Strangers on a Train novel seemed then an absolute certainty for an entertaining read.
Guy Haines is a gifted young architect travelling by train to see his ex-wife Miriam. I say ex, but they’re just separated and Guy needs a divorce so he can marry his new love Anne. The problem is that Miriam’s a schemer and Guy doesn’t expect to get free of her without paying some kind of price.
A tall blond young man in a rust-brown suit dropped into the empty seat opposite Guy and, smiling with a vague friendliness, slid over into the corner. Guy glanced at his pallid, undersized face. There was a huge pimple in the exact centre of his forehead.
That tall young man is the idly rich Charles Anthony Bruno. Guy is serious and hard-working; a responsible fellow with a bright future ahead of him who’s earned his many achievements to date. Bruno (as he’s mostly referred to) is Guy’s opposite; diffident and drunk and born to privilege.
Bruno engages Guy in reluctant conversation. He’s one of those people you run into on a long train journey or flight who won’t shut up, but Guy finds himself drawn in and eventually the conversation turns to murder. Bruno you see hates his father and likes to dream perfect plans for killing without getting caught.
Despite the warning signs Guy ends up having dinner with Bruno and then drinks in Bruno’s cabin. Bruno needs to vent, but so in his own way does Guy who has his own problems and who finds himself telling this “stranger on the train who would listen, commiserate, and forget” about the grasping Miriam.
By the end of the evening Bruno has suggested his latest scheme for a perfect murder – that two strangers swap victims each killing the other’s. Since in each case the actual murderer would have no motive for their crime the police would surely be lost trying to work out who was responsible. Naturally Guy doesn’t bite, but when a few weeks later he hears that Miriam has been strangled to death he begins to wonder…
The narrative shifts between Guy and Bruno’s perspectives, so the reader knows for certain what Guy only suspects – Bruno murdered Miriam. However, initially at least Bruno’s motive isn’t the murder-swap that he proposed. He just wants to help Guy. Bruno is like a feral puppy, desperately seeking Guy’s friendship and approval but capable at any moment of turning on those around him. Bruno expects Guy’s gratitude, but when Guy works out what’s happened he reacts only in horror and Bruno finds himself spurned. Bruno doesn’t take rejection well.
Guy finds himself in an impossible position. He has an alibi for Miriam’s murder, but he also has a clear motive and Bruno keeps showing up. Worse it turns out that Bruno and Anne are in the same social circles making it ever easier for Bruno to make himself part of Guy’s life. The more Guy pushes back the more Bruno gets upset, and Bruno decides that if Guy won’t be his friend the least he can do is fulfil his part of the bargain and kill Bruno’s father.
Bruno clearly is a narcissistic psychopath. He’s fixated on Guy and there’s a strong implication of sublimated attraction. What about Guy himself though? Why didn’t he break off that initial conversation? Why does he let Bruno get under his skin so easily? Guy’s successful and brilliant in his profession but he’s also weak, easily dominated first by Miriam and now by Bruno. Even with the sensible and loving Anne he finds himself the junior partner, with her driving their relationship and helping push forward his career.
The ugly truth here is that for all the revulsion he feels Guy likes Bruno, and something about Bruno resonates with him. They’re both part-men, each completed by the other. That cover image above isn’t from the edition I have, but I liked it and its byline does capture a truth of the book: an evil man, but also a weak one.
Later, as their plans inevitably start to unravel, Bruno asks a private investigator sniffing into the links between him and Guy whether he understands the calibre of man that Guy is. The PI replies “‘The only calibre ever worth considering is the gun’s’”. When they first met Bruno said something similar telling Guy that anyone, given the right circumstance, could find themselves capable of murder.
Guy Haines has a glittering career, a beautiful and rich new wife, good character and a clear path into the establishment. The PI was right though, and so was Bruno on that fateful first meeting. The only calibre that matters is the gun’s.
Guy Savage reviewed this at his, here.