Today marks 100 years since the birth of Patricia Highsmith and I thought it was as good a day as any to review her debut novel Strangers on a Train.
I’ve read quite a few of Highsmith’s novels but was really surprised to learn that this was her debut as it is astonishingly assured, maintaining suspense and tension throughout.
Guy Haines has everything going for him. A successful architect, being mentioned in the same breath as Frank Lloyd Wright, he has just secured the biggest commission of his life. He is in love, with the beautiful and wealthy Anne and they plan to get married and move into a new home that Guy will design. He has one problem. He is still married to Miriam, but as the novel opens, he is travelling to see her and secure a divorce. She has never agreed to a divorce before, but now she is pregnant with her lover’s child and Guy sees this as his opportunity to rid himself of his past and look to the future and his new life.
But a chance meeting on the train derails all of Guy’s plans. Wealthy sociopath Charles Bruno invites Guy to dine in his compartment and as the alcohol flows and Guy complains about how Miriam is the one thing stopping him having what he wants, Bruno suggests a plan. Bruno will kill Miriam, while Guy will kill Bruno’s hated father and no one will be able to connect them. The perfect crime for each of them. Guy is horrified and leaves as soon as he can, but his life is soon turned upside down when Miriam is found murdered, just as Bruno had suggested.
What follows is a delicious game of cat-and-mouse as Bruno inveigles his way into Guy’s life, threatening him and blackmailing him to uphold his side of the ‘bargain’ and kill Bruno’s father. The writing is taut and claustrophobic, the story told mainly from the thoughts inside the two protagonists heads, and Highsmith never lets up as Guy is pushed further and further into a corner that he has no way out of.
Many noir thrillers tend to bypass interiority for action and cliffhangers, but Highsmith often slows the narrative pacing down to let the reader get inside Guy and Bruno’s heads, and in the case of this story, that element is the key to the novel’s success.
Strangers on a Train is also a perfect portrait of obsession. Bruno is obsessed with the idea that his lazy, unfocused life will improve if his father dies and in Guy his sees a man who, he feels, would have a better life if his wife was dead.
This warped symmetry feeds into Bruno’s latent homosexual attraction to Guy, which Highsmith subtly hints at without driving the point too far. The more Guy tries to block Bruno from his life, the more he becomes obsessed with him, until he feels that the only way to escape from the ongoing clamour of his thoughts is to kill Bruno’s father and if needed, kill Bruno himself.
But love and hate, he thought now, 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. One had merely to look for a little of either to find it all, one had merely to scratch the surface. All things had opposites close by, every decision a reason against it, every animal an animal that destroys it, the male the female, the positive the negative.
In this way, Highsmith also skillfully shows just how far a person will go to save themselves. At the outset, Guy is the ‘good guy’. He is disgusted by Bruno’s plan and disgusted by Bruno, who is everything he is not. Yet, as the book progresses, he sees the benefits to doing what Bruno is forcing him to do and the suggestion is that Guy isn’t all that different from Bruno after all. They are instead, two sides of the same coin.
People, feelings, everything! Double! Two people in each person. There’s also a person exactly the opposite of you, like the unseen part of you, somewhere in the world, and he waits in ambush.
Strangers on a Train is a stunning debut novel, boasting an iconic plot, razor sharp tension, complex psychological characters and piercing insight into human nature. I I plan to read a few more Highsmith’s throughout this centenary year, do let me know if you have any favourites.
READ ON: IbOOK
NUMBER READ: 303
NUMBER REMAINING: 443
I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!