Patricia Highsmith might be best known for her Ripley novels and their film adaptations, but Strangers on a Train, her first novel, set the path for her career and has likewise been adapted several times, most notably by Alfred Hitchcock in 1951. It is an unsettling, suspenseful psychological thriller that features brutal crime and some deep philosophical pondering.
Guy Haines, an up and coming architect, is on his way home to Metcalf, TX, with the expectation that his philandering wife Miriam is going to finally grant him the divorce he wants. On the train, a fellow passenger named Charley Bruno strikes up a conversation with Guy. Bruno seems like an irresponsible, gregarious, wealthy young man, spoiled but seemingly good natured, and yet there is something off-putting about him. Bruno wears Guy down, inviting him to his compartment to dine and drink, and in the course of an unusual conversation, Bruno reveals that he hates his father. Bruno guesses correctly about many of Guy’s personal details, particularly relating to his unhappy marriage, but even more disturbing, Guy finds himself revealing information despite himself. Bruno then proposes a trade off: Bruno will kill Miriam and Guy will kill Bruno’s father. Guy is disgusted and states that even if a person thinks in passing about killing someone, it doesn’t mean they are the kind of person to really do it, but Bruno protests, “Any kind of person can murder.” As Bruno lays out his plan and why it would work, part of Guy
… could feel there was a logic in it somewhere, like a problem or puzzle to be solved.
Guy refuses the offer and doesn’t see Bruno again when he leaves the next morning. But Bruno is not one to be put off easily and he is fascinated by Guy and his life. Bruno goes ahead with his part of the plan, and Guy finds himself in a very difficult and dangerous situation. Bruno knows how to find him and insists that he follow through with the second murder.
Highsmith writes expertly about crime and about human psychology. Bruno is a frightening psychopath who can hide his deviancy behind a cloying charm; he annoys people but also somehow ingratiates himself with them. His ability to lie and manipulate is chilling but his self-destructive tendencies make him vulnerable. Guy is a fascinating psychological and philosophical case. Through this character, Highsmith examines the concept of duality within a single person, and of needing the opposite in one’s life:
…love and hate … good and evil, lived side by side in the human heart, and not merely in differing proportions in one man and the next, but all good and all evil.
Nothing could be without its opposite that was bound up with it.
As Guy tries to move ahead with his career and with his fiancee Anne, he is split between darkness and light; when he thinks of his work and of his love, he is optimistic, but murder and Bruno weigh heavily on him and draw him into a depression. There is a part of Guy that hates Bruno and yet needs him. Both men get to a point where death conjures no fear, and Guy in particular desires an atonement, a reckoning of some sort.
The way this reckoning plays out is thrilling to read. Highsmith keeps readers on the edge of their seats. The details of murder and the deranged psyche of a character like Bruno are highly unsettling to read, as is the slow fall out, not knowing what Guy will do, and whether characters will get away with murder or be murdered. While Highsmith spends some time with the reader in Bruno’s brain, it’s Guy’s that is more interesting because he is a seemingly “normal” person. Is it true what Bruno says, that anyone can be a murderer? That it all comes down to opportunity and not character? This novel could generate some fascinating discussions in a book group but would also be an interesting choice for a philosophy or theology class. If you enjoy crime novels and psychological drama, Strangers on a Train is a great pick.