The train tore along with an angry, irregular rhythm.

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.

Strangers

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.

Other reviews

Guy Savage reviewed this at his, here.

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7 Comments

Filed under Crime Fiction, Highsmith, Patricia

7 responses to “The train tore along with an angry, irregular rhythm.

  1. I love the film of this, but oddly enough I don’t think I’ve ever read the book (a gap I really ought to remedy at some point). There are some parallels here with The Talented Mr Ripley. In some ways, I wonder if Strangers was a sort of forerunner of the Ripley series. Highsmith’s so good on the psychology of these characters, isn’t she? I noticed it in Carol as well, even though it seemed like a very different type of story at first sight.

  2. I know this is trivial really, but don’t you love the covers of those old Bantam paperbacks. So pulp fiction in looks even if not totally so in content.

    I haven’t read any Highsmith, but have certainly seen some movie adaptations, including of course this one, and the most recent and very different one Carol.

    I enjoyed you review, including your last line, Max. I’m not sure if I’ll ever find time to read it, but if I did it would be because of your review as much as anything!

  3. Thanks for the mention. You have to love those old covers … I really enjoyed the differences between the book and the film, and it’s my fab. Hitchcock film, I have to say–although Frenzy comes close.

  4. The film is simpler, in that it’s good/evil and there’s no sense that Guy is somehow complicit, but I actually prefer it overall. The film is just so well executed and so taut.

    Apparently, according to wikipedia anyway, the entire fairground ending of the movie is taken from another novel entirely. It’s certainly not in this one.

    WG, I picked it because I loved that cover. It actually captures the book fairly well in part. I saw you left a comment on Mrs Claremont – if you read just one of these two it should be that one.

    Jacqui, there are definite parallels with Ripley and I can see it might be a forerunner. To be honest, Talented is the better novel. Carol is still definitely on my TBR list.

    Guy, you do indeed. Probably my favourite Hitchcock too, though I do rather love North by Northwest.

  5. Thanks Max — I’m not surprised you say that re the two. I’ll take it on board!

  6. I’m catching up on posts.
    I really enjoyed this one when I read it after Guy picked it for me.

  7. Emma, have you reviewed this? I’m behind on blog posts so I may have missed it. Glad you liked it.

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