Monday, December 28, 2015

Review of Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith (1950, Penguin)

Guy Haines is an architect travelling to Texas to seek a divorce from his young, wayward wife.  Charles Anthony Bruno is a rich man of leisure journeying on the same train to meet-up with his mother.  Charles is consumed by the idea of committing the perfect murder and spends part of the trip trying to persuade his compartment companion to trade slayings – Guy’s wife for Charles’ father.  Guy isn’t interested; he wants a divorce not a death.  However, Charles becomes obsessed with the idea and when Guy’s wife tries to delay the divorce and Guy gives up an important commission he takes matters into his own hands.  His action drags Guy into an unwanted obligation and despite his best attempts to move on, Charles haunts his life.

Strangers on a Train was Patricia Highsmith’s first novel.  At its heart is a simple but effective premise – if two strangers swap murders they can potentially commit the perfect crime.  To give the tale a twist, she makes one of the strangers very keen to ensure the Faustian bargain is struck and the other a very reluctant participant.  And while one has something to gain, the other has a lot to lose.  Highsmith neatly manoeuvres the pieces into place, binding the two strangers together, and then ratchets up the psychological tension first with respect to the murders, then the fear of being discovered and the fear of each other as their lives become ever more entwined.  It’s a nicely put together tale, though some of the plot devices are quite weak, such as Guy giving up an important commission.  My main issue, however, was the characterization.  Charles is somewhat one-dimensional and Guy just seems to act as a foil for Charles and the plot.  Nonetheless it has an interesting hook, is an engaging story, and it’s obvious why it appealed to Hitchcock for a movie adaptation.


R.T. said...

Your incisive review has me ready to reread Highsmith's novel; you're critical assessment of characterization gives me plenty to think about when I revisit the psychopathology in the novel.

Rob Kitchin said...

I think the issue for me is that it feels that she started with the premise and the psychopathology and then fitted the characters to those, rather than starting with the premise and characters.