Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith (Classics Club #1)

A sense of purpose, strange and sweet to him, carried him along in an irresistible current. Merely in gazing out the window, he felt a new coordination of mind and eye. He began to realize what he intended to so. He was on his way to do a murder which not only would fulfill a desire of years, but would benefit a friend. It made Bruno very happy to do things for his friends. And his victim deserved her fate. Think of all the other good guys he would save from ever knowing her! The realization of his importance dazzled his mind, and for a long moment he felt completely and happily drunk. 

51eqhnR+VGL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_My first pick from my Classics Club list was a good one. Patricia Highsmith’s debut novel Strangers on a Train was a creepy, tense, psychological read. I had watched the Hitchcock film for the first time a few months ago, and wasn’t quite impressed. I found it overly long and lacking in star charisma. The book was better in my opinion, because it gives the reader a more revealing look into the minds of both its main characters, Charles Bruno and Guy Haines. Tension builds slowly as both men become more and more unhinged.

Guy and Bruno meet on a train to Metcalf, TX, where Guy’s mother lives. Bruno is on his way to meet his own mother in Sante Fe. Bruno is pushy and lonely, fueled by alcohol, and convinces Guy to dine with him in his private drawing room. There he regales Guy with tales of how unfairly he’s treated by his father, who controls the purse-strings and disapproves of Bruno’s gadabout, lazy ways. Guy humors and observes him, and when Bruno tells him he’s committed a robbery, Guy believes him.

Bruno could be violent. He could be insane, too. Despair, Guy thought, not insanity. The desperate boredom of the wealthy, that he often spoke of to Anne. It tended to destroy rather than create. And it could lead to crime as easily as privation.

51YICz8X2yL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Bruno gets Guy to open up about his own troubles, the fact that he’s trying to get his unfaithful wife Miriam to divorce him (partly so he can move on with his girlfriend, Anne, which he doesn’t tell Bruno at the time.) So Bruno offers what he considers an unbeatable idea: Bruno will murder Miriam and Guy can return the favor by murdering his father. They just met on the train, after all, so there will be nothing to connect them to one another in the investigations. A foolproof plan, right?

I don’t want to spoil any of the developments in case you’ve neither seen the movie nor read the book. As the two men’s lives become more entangled and things go awry, Highsmith does an excellent job conveying the deteriorating mental conditions of both men. Bruno is practically in love with Guy, hounding him for attention and friendship. Guy is repelled by Bruno and wants nothing to do with him but can’t seem to be able to tell Anne or the police what’s going on. At one point Bruno sends him letters detailing how Guy should carry out the murder of his father. Then he burns them, thinking no one would believe him. I exasperatedly wrote in my notes, “IDIOT!” But of course, if he had gone to the police, the novel would have ended at about 130 pages. Bruno keeps tightening the screws on Guy until he becomes a sleepless, depressed mess, and then…

Despite the ingenious plot device at the beginning, I wouldn’t say this was a plot-driven novel. It’s more of an interior, psychological character study of two men – one with an alcohol problem and deep-seated mental problems that reveal themselves over time and one who is seemingly “normal” but is slowly driven mad by guilt and secrets and perhaps his own unacknowledged rage.  It reminded me in a way of the standalone novels I’ve read by Ruth Rendell, one of my favorite mystery writers. She has a way of making unlikable and possibly deranged characters at the very least understandable. Highsmith wasn’t quite there yet, in my opinion, with this debut novel, but the quality of the writing and the depth of the main characters elevate it to four stars in my eyes. Can anyone really be capable of murder, as Bruno believes?

Have you read this or seen the film? Have you read any other of Patricia Highsmith’s novels?

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24 thoughts on “Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith (Classics Club #1)

  1. I absolutely love Patricia Highsmith and although I enjoyed Strangers on a Train, I have enjoyed some of her other novels far more. The Talented Mr Ripley is incredible, if you haven’t read that you should definitely check it out.

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  2. I’ve only ever seen the movie. While it’s not my favorite Hitchcock movie, it does have some amazing scenes. Like the murder itself seen through the glasses with the carnival music in the background. And the carousel scene at the end. Oh, and the tennis match. Not sure if these are just Hitchcock, or if they’re actually referenced in the book.

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    1. Actually, the movie and the book are quite different. The murder at the carnival is pretty much the same, but there is no tennis match (Guy is an architect) and there is no climactic return to the carnival at the end. I agree, that ending scene at the carousel is really something!

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  3. This sounds interesting and I like the excerpts that you shared. The first out especially lays out a very interesting premise. It made curious about the murderer, murder and motives. I have never read a classic psychological thriller. I didn’t even know that’s a genre. Not a fan of classics but I think I would enjoy this one.

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    1. I’m glad I could tempt you to give this a try, Diana! I think you would enjoy it given what I know about your reading tastes. It is a slower pace than most contemporary thrillers, but the two main characters go through so many emotional ups and downs that it stays interesting.

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  4. Excellent review, and I agree with your four star rating. It has so much good about it, but it’s not unflawed – the main flaw, in my opinion, that the first half is so slow. It seems to speed up half way through and I found the second half so much better with a lot more tension. But you’re completely wrong about the film, obviously because you haven’t watched it often enough yet… 😉

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    1. 🙂 Ha ha! I love you, Fiction Fan!

      Yes, clearly, I should watch it again. I must have missed something! I’ll get right to it once I’ve watched all the OTHER Hitchcock films I’ve not yet seen! (There are many – I somehow missed most of them in my youth!)

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  5. I read the novel years ago and loved it. It played right into my anxious feelings about being out of control. Bruno seems like such a loser, but here’s there again, and again, and again. It’s also the reason the movie Cable Guy freaks me out so much! I didn’t like the Hitchcock movie so much. I know that when he gets his hands on a novel, he greatly changes it. He and the producer of Rebecca fought like crazy about it, which is why the movie is largely similar to the novel: the producer had to hang around and babysit things.

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  6. Even though I normally leave space after reading a book, before watching the film, so that my expectations aren’t too tightly rooted to the page, I watched in close proximity with this one and found the pair tremendously satisfying. I have only read a couple of her others, but I’d like to read more. Glad your Classics Club reading got off to a good start: that should help keep you reading! (I love Ruth Rendell too.)

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  7. I haven’t read Highsmith but have seen the two films Talented Mr. Ripley and Carol based on her books. She seems to get into the psychological of people and her tales are a bit creepy, eh? Glad you enjoyed this book. I hadn’t heard of it before. Enjoy your spring break!

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