Algernon (Darth Anyan)'s Reviews > Strangers on a Train

Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith
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Any kind of person can murder. Purely circumstances and not a thing to do with temperament! People get so far - and it gets just the least little thing to push them over the brink. Anybody. Even your grandmother. I know!

A disturbing proposition that I happen to strongly disagree with, but I can't think of a more able writer to raise doubts in my mind and to argue the merits of the case. According to her biographical notes, Patricia Highsmith started her study of perverted human nature at a very early age ( At the age of eight, she discovered Karl Menninger's The Human Mind and was fascinated by the case studies of patients afflicted with mental disorders such as pyromania and schizophrenia. ), and a list of her favorite authors include Kafka, Dostoyevsky, Camus, Conrad. It is no surprise then that, when she turned her talent towards writing crime fiction, she concentrated not on the whodunit questions, but on the motivations and the twisted reasonings in the mind of the killers.

"Strangers on a Train" is her debut novel, and the circumstances alluded to in the opening statement are as follows: two men accidentally meet and start a conversation during one of those long nights traversing the praerie. One of them, Guy, is a young arhitect on the brink of success, who goes back to his native Midwestern hometown to get a divorce from his embittered wife. The other, Bruno, is a rich socialite with an alcohol addiction and a deep seated hatred for his tight-fisted father. I am simplifying things here, as there are undercurrents and side issues that will come into play, a baggage of repressed feelings and unackowledged yearnings that would put a roomfull of psychologists to work for a year to untangle - Oedipal, Faustian, homosexual, envy, greed, anxiety - the list could go on and on, but basically Guy sees himself a a straight shooter, and Bruno is revealed even from the first statements a raving psychopat. The object of Highsmith's study is then not Bruno, already damaged goods, but Guy, and the path that will lead him to abandon all his principles and participate in the psychopat's game.

Mention of the game, means that from this point forward the review will contain spoilers, so tread carefully if you are unfamiliar with the story or with Alfred Hitchcock's famous movie adaptation.

- - - -

The plan is for each man to solve the other man's problem. Bruno will get rid of Guy's wife, and Guy will knock off Bruno's father. In this way both will have unbreakable alibis, and the police will find no motive for the murders, since the two men are supposedly strangers to one another. As any sane person would do, Guy rejects the offer without a second of doubt. But Bruno is another kettle of fish.

- "What do you want, Bruno?"
- "Something. Everything. I got a theory a person ought to do everything it's possible to do before he dies, and maybe die trying to do something that's really impossible."

The first half of the novel concentrates more on Bruno's side of the story, and it was a page turner for me, despite the repulsive feeling I got from dwelling so long inside the mind of a deranged person. Patricia Highsmith is the writer that sets down the standard by which other psychological thrillers will be judged in the future. Arguably, her Ripley books are more subtle and better argumented, but the major themes and the style is already evident here, in her first novel. One quote I think is enough to illustrate my point:

Oh, yes, he had felt terrific power! That was it. He had taken away a life. Now, nobody knew what life was, everybody defended it, the most priceless possession, but he had taken one away. That night there had been the danger, the ache of his hands, the fear in case she made a sound, but the instant when he felt that life had left her, everything else had fallen away, and only the mysterious fact of the thing he did remained, the mystery and the miracle of stopping life.

The second part of the novel switches focus on Guy, and here is where I started to struggle a little, not with the pacing, which remains tightly wounded, but with the lead character's motivations. I found the weakening of the ethical principles in the young arhitect a touch too abrupt and convenient for the needs of the plot. The moral blackmail that Bruno exercises on Guy is still within the parameters of that deranged mind, but the response of Guy is for me out of character - a debilitating weakness and a torturous chain of reasoning that swings wildly from denial of facts to fatalistic acceptance of Bruno's arguments. Case in point: despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, Guy still pretends Bruno has nothing to do with the death of his first wife. I know temporary insanity is an accepted pledge in American courts of law, but for me this a cop out. To illustrate the kind of debate that goes oninside Guy's head, I have picked up one of his monologues:

... love and hate, he thought now, good and evil, lived side by side in the human heart, and not merely in different 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, the male and female, the positive the negative.

Had this novel been writen by a male author, such association between evil and the female principle would have been cause for burning at the stake by feminists. Why did Highsmith include it here? Is it a mirror of the relationship between sexes in the early 50's? Or some other deeper disappointment in her own sentimental liaisons? Since the author preferred to be discreet about her personal life, my speculations here are gratuitous, but it is interesting to note the level of analysis that can be supported in the behaviour observations of Highsmith's characters.

The third part of the novel started to drag on for me, as the lines are already drawn in the conflict of personalities between Bruno and Guy, the action is concluded, and the only unresolved issue is the aftermath of the crime. Who will punish the successful criminal? Society seems unable to, and an appeal to Bruno's conscience is an exercise in futility. The only one left is Guy, and his late arrival misgivings rang as contrived to me as his earlier acquiescence to Bruno's demands. In all honesty, Highsmith is still brilliant in her exposition and in her ability to go from the personal to the problems of society as a whole, but as a reader I was surprisingly eager to get it over with, not caring one way or another if Guy embraces his Dark Side, or if he returns to the fold of the responsible social animal.

Conclusion: mixed feelings, admiration for the author's talent, coupled with personal dislike for one of her main characters (surprisingly, not the openly corrupt one). The rank of the novel among the classics of crime fiction is well deserved. I have started with a controversial theory, and I would like to finish on a more ambiguous note, one that is easier to get behind, even as it deconstructs most of my arguments above:

Logic doesn't always work out, so far as people go.
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Reading Progress

August 9, 2015 – Started Reading
August 9, 2015 – Shelved
August 23, 2015 – Shelved as: 2015
August 23, 2015 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-8 of 8 (8 new)

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message 1: by Howard (new)

Howard Excellent review, Algernon. I have had Highsmith on my TBR list for a long time, but have never found time to read any of her books. But after your review I think when I do get around to it that I will read one of her Ripley novels.

Algernon (Darth Anyan) I may have had mixed reactions to her characters, but her writing skills are impressive.

message 3: by Steve (new)

Steve First of all, I'm glad your grandmother was not implicated by the opening statement. Secondly, this was a great review.

message 4: by Algernon (Darth Anyan) (last edited Aug 25, 2015 07:45PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Algernon (Darth Anyan) She is guilty though of the demise of a gaggle (I think trhis the crowd word) of chicken.

message 5: by Shahd (new)

Shahd What is the moral?

message 6: by Shahd (new)

Shahd What is the moral?

Algernon (Darth Anyan) The moral?
Will your principles and your integrity survive unscathed from a life and death situation? Is it true that anybody is capable of murder?

David Schaafsma Great review! I liked it, too.

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