A 20th Century Jekyll and Hyde: ‘Strangers on a Train’ by Patricia Highsmith (1950)

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Like most readers, I first encountered ‘Strangers on a Train’ as the Hitchcock classic in which tennis star Guy Haynes meets the charming and debonaire Bruno Anthony and is introduced to the idea of the perfect murder.  It’s simple, if two people meet each other by chance, and then each kills the other’s antagonist, the police will never be able to match suspect to motive.  The resulting film is stunning and I recommend it to everyone, but it is more than matched by the joys of the wonderful source novel.  The book may share the movie’s premise, but it takes it in a very different, very Highsmith, direction.

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The point is that the film and the book tell two very different stories.  For a start, in Highsmith’s novel, Haines is an architect, setting up a whole separate host of connotations in comparison with physically competitive vocation of Hitchcock’s ‘every-man’ character.  More significantly, Bruno is not an enigmatic, quietly contained maniac.  He’s far from a charismatic killer, at best, he’s vaguely offensive and forgettable.  On the initial train journey, Guy is able to examine him:
‘…The monogram that trembled on a thin gold chain across the tie of the young man opposite him.  The monogram was CAB, and the tie was of green silk, hand-painted with offensively orange-coloured palm trees. The long rust-brown body was sprawled vulnerably now, the head thrown back so that the big pimple or boil on the forehead might have been a topmost point that had erupted.  It was an interesting face, though Guy did not know why.  It looked neither young nor old, neither intelligent nor entirely stupid. Between the narrow bulging forehead and the lantern jaw, it scooped degenerately, deep where the mouth lay in a fine line, deepest in the blue hollows that held the small scallops of the lids.  The skin was smooth as a girl’s, even waxenly clear, as if all its impurities had been drained to feed the pimple’s outburst.
The ‘perfect murder’ idea is a good one (Bruno makes up such scenarios obsessively), but the great achievement of Highsmith’s novel is the character who devised it.  This is because the psychological tension does not arise from action but from psychology; the horror grows by gradual degrees, as Guy and the reader become drawn into Bruno’s demented world.

I don’t want to say too much about the story (other than it contains set pieces to rival the tennis-match in the film, including a breathtaking fairground carrousel scene).  Instead I found myself fascinated by Highsmith’s presentation of a murderer.  Bruno is a powerful character because of his believable and repulsive weakness.  He is an alcoholic and a wastrel, childishly unrestrained and unreasonable in his passions.  He hates his father and seductive women; he loves his mother and Guy Haines.  His Freudian obsessions would be outdately obvious if it wasn’t for his hypnotic influence on Guy, and on us.  However text-book Bruno’s neuroses may be, Highsmith brings them to life by exposing our own obsession with the dark and primal side of human relationships.  It is through a chance encounter that Haines meets his diabolical other and there is no way to escape the consequences.  Finding his whole life infested by Bruno’s influence Haines reflects that ‘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 had a reason against it, every animal an animal that destroys it, the male the female, the positive the negative.  The splitting of the atom was the only true destruction, the breaking of the universal law of oneness.  Nothing could be without its opposite that was bound up with it.’

‘Strangers on a Train’ is a classic crime novel not because it was made into a wonderful film, but because of Highsmith’s genius for mixing pop-psychology with compelling character study, story telling with philosophy.  Humblingly, it was also Highsmith’s first novel.  She would go on to create Tom Ripley, that most fascinating of serial killers, but I’m not sure she ever topped this initial exploration of the dark duality of human nature.

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18 Responses to A 20th Century Jekyll and Hyde: ‘Strangers on a Train’ by Patricia Highsmith (1950)

  1. I really must read a Patricia Highsmith, it feels like I’ve missed out on something, I mean she’s even featured in the Novel Cure!

  2. Sarah says:

    I love the film, but had put it’s compelling, thrilling brilliance down to the genus of Hitchcock. You’ve convinced me otherwise. I shall have to read the book!

  3. BookerTalk says:

    i know the film well but the book sounds even better.

    • I don’t know if it’s better, but it’s definitely at least as good. One joy is that, because the stories and characters are so different, it’s easy to approach both without finding one spoils the other.

  4. JacquiWine says:

    Highsmith’s great – she’s so good on the psychology of her characters. Carol made my list reading highlights last year, so it’s good to see that you’ve been reading it too.

  5. Elle says:

    Fab review! I really must read some Highsmith soon.

  6. FictionFan says:

    One of my favourite films, especially that carousel scene! I’ve always been a bit reluctant to read the book in case it affects my enjoyment of the film, but from what you say they sound different enough to stay as two separate entities.

    • Separate entities is right, and usually it’s hard to get over book/film adaptations that do this, but here each works really well in its own right. I hope you enjoy the book as much as I have…

  7. Lovely review Shoshi – I find Highsmith MUCH darker than Hitchcock!

  8. I’m planning on reading this soon for the Around the World in 80 Books Reading Challenge, where one of the reads has to be linked with travel. I really like the film, so I’m pleased to hear this is different but just as good!

  9. Pingback: A Far From Conventional Love Story: ‘Carol’ by Patricia Highsmith (1952) | Shoshi's Book Blog

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