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Posted by Gary F. Taylor on 5/27/2005
Patricia Highsmith (1921-1991) was among the most lauded of the "noir" writers, an author who published over twenty books and won such prestigious prizes as the O. Henry Memorial Award and the Edgar Allan Poe Award. But in spite of her tremendous fame in Europe, she did not win fame in her native United States until after death, when the 1999 film version of her 1955 novel THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY at last brought her work the recognition it had long deserved.
The 1950 novel STRANGERS ON A TRAIN was Highsmith's first novel, and the premise was so intriguing that no less than legendary director Alfred Hitchcock snapped up the movie rights and turned it into one of his most admired films. The Hitchcock film is a classic of its kind--but even so the novel was both too hot and too dark to be filmed "as is" in the repressive 1950s. Readers who come to the book from the film are in for a surprise.
The very famous point on which the plot turns, however, is the same. Two men, Guy and Bruno, meet by chance on a train and pass the time in conversation. Each reveals to the other that a specific person stands in the way of happiness: for Guy, it is a wayward wife who refuses to give him a divorce; for Bruno it is a stubborn father who refuses him money. When Bruno playfully suggests that he will kill the wife for Guy if Guy will kill the father for Bruno it seems like a bad-taste joke... But Guy will soon discover there is nothing to laugh about at all.
From this opening salvo Highsmith unwinds and rewinds her plot in a manner distinctly different from the Hitchcock film, and even today the book is best known for its fiendish storyline. But it is the characters that make it work, and Bruno emerges as one of the most brilliantly constructed psychopaths of 20th Century fiction. By turns comic, pitiful, stupid, and witty, Bruno's insignificant veneer masks a truly deadly turn of mind. The all-American-honest Guy is no less memorable as his personality slowly but surely deteriorates under Bruno's pressure, and even the most minor of characters pop and sizzle with life under Highsmith's pen.
Although long out of print in the United States, STRANGERS ON A TRAIN is back with a vengeance--and the icy, direct, and darkly comic tone of the novel sets it among the best of Highsmith's remarkable work. Recommended.
GFT, Amazon Reviewer
In Memory of Ellen R. Smith, 1920-2005
Virtuoso Pianist and Good Friend
Posted by William Hare on 12/27/2003
Patricia Highsmith's "Strangers on a Train" came out in 1950, attaining prompt bestseller status and intriguing filmdom's master of intrigue, Alfred Hitchcock, enough to fashion a film around it which was released one year later. Highsmith jolted readers with her gripping realism, taking a basically simple but clever plot and carving out something much more.
Highsmith's book focuses on two men in their twenties, Charlie Bruno and Guy Haines. The former is of great New York wealth, but is troubled and is headed for cataclysmic disaster, which he appears eager to reach fast through his alcoholic dissipation and all-purpose troublemaking. The latter has worked his way upward from a modest, middle class background in his native Texas to become one of America's premier architects before reaching his thirtieth birthday.
Under normal circumstances these individuals would probably never cross paths, but fate intervenes when they travel on the same train and meet as a result of the extroverted Bruno forcing himself on the more introspective Haines, who does not want to appear rude. When Bruno learns that Haines is faced with an unpleasant divorce situation in dealing with a promiscuous wife, the inebriated Bruno jolts his more stable traveling companion by suggesting that they swap murders. Someone who avidly reads mystery books, Bruno states that they would each perform a perfect crime since they would each be killing total strangers and there is nothing to link them to their victims. Bruno wants Haines to kill his father, who is standing in the way of his getting access to the family wealth. The reason for his hatred of his father is also linked to his slavish devotion to his mother, who is seen as a quasi-deity to the troubled young man.
Haines leaves the compartment when Bruno is sleeping off his drinking, convinced he will never hear from him again. He does, and under the most frightening circumstances. Highsmith has such a brilliant penchant for plotting mystery that no more will be given away, except to say that the psychological currents and cross-currents put readers squarely into the picture. The author forces the reader to make judgments of their own about life and death, and how we deal with each, and how authority is correlated with society. Are the two in opposition to each other? This is one of the probing questions she asks mainly through the interactions of the characters.
Highsmith could be referred to as an American Dostoyevsky. Just as the great nineteenth century Russian author probed the inner mind and the dimensions of guilt within the framework of someone who has taken a human life, the American touches those same roots in an atmosphere of chilling suspense. Bruno and Haines are characters fastened indelibly into the mind after reading Highsmith's explosive novel.
Posted by Arthur from Brooklyn on 10/24/2000
I had to join in this small but growing chorus of praise for Strangers on a Train. It is a wonderful read - and not just for suspense fans. Forget the film, this book is a dizzying ride through the mind of a man who is unexpectedly confronted with his darker half. Without giving too much away, check it out if only for the scene in the amusement park in Metcalf!
By the way, this title is out of print in the U.S. but is in print and available from any British bookstore. I got mine over the internet, with a wait of several weeks for the package to arrive. It was worth the effort! Read this book!
Subtly menacing, every sentence slowly picking at your sanity...
Posted by Andrew Ellington on 4/13/2007
Patricia Highsmith was ahead of her time, constructing the perfect crime novel long before it would truly be appreciated. Sadly she was never as famously accepted as she could have been while still living, but thanks to reprints and reissues her novels are being given a new breath of life. Now I say all of this and I have only had the pleasure of reading one of her novels, but that novel was so articulately perfect that I have nothing but the utmost respect for the late author. `Strangers on a Train' is so brilliantly crafted that I'm racking my brain to find a flaw, a drawback of some sort and the only thing I can muster is that here and there there are some grammatical errors, but other than that...I'm coming up empty handed.
Any fan of the Hitchcock film will immediately understand why the famed late director scooped up the film rights to this novel. The premise alone deserves the reader's utmost respect. Two strangers get wrapped up in the perfect crime that escalates into the most horrific journey into the human psyche.
Up and coming architect Guy Haines is traveling by train to meet his estranged wife Miriam to pursue a divorce. Miriam has given Guy nothing but heartache, nothing but trouble, and his nerves are getting the better of him. What if she refuses the divorce? He has a lot riding on this. He has a big job in the works that could finally make for him the name he's been waiting to make. He also has a wonderful supportive woman, Anne, waiting to give her his hand in marriage. He needs this divorce more now than ever.
Charles Bruno so happens to be traveling on the same train. Bruno is traveling to escape his father, a man he abhors with every fiber in his body. His father has denied him all that he feels he is entitled to, and he's come to loathe him in such a way that his death seems all Bruno can think of. If only his father were out of the picture, if only somehow, someway he could be rid of this horror of a man.
And with that the wheels begin to turn, as Guy meets Bruno and Bruno delves deeply into this man, winning over his trust and then devising a plan which involves a double homicide, the two of them trading off murders. It seems so perfect, Bruno, who has no relation to either Guy or Miriam, kills Miriam to free Guy of his ex and in return Guy murders Bruno's father. Guy immediately dismisses the idea as a sick joke and from that point on does all he can to avoid Bruno. Bruno on the other hand doesn't so easily forget Guy, and he decides to go ahead with the plan whether Guy wants to participate or not, but it's after he's snuffed the life out of Miriam that the trouble really begins.
In order for a plan like this to work the two parties would need to remain separate, distant and out of touch, but Bruno slowly becomes obsessed with Guy, falling in love with him in a way and begins to haunt, stalk and torture (mentally) Guy to the point to sheer insanity. The novel continues to weave Bruno's twisted web and we, the reader, are able to sit back and experience madness at its most effective. Patricia was able to paint this picture so clear that we are left with no feeling other than contentment and pure satisfaction. Yes, this novel plays out differently than the famed film, but that's no reason to disregard the novel altogether. It's worth every word penned!
A lesson in uneasiness & the nature of evil
Posted by lady detective on 2/27/2005
Charles Bruno is not the kind of man you want to confide in, but Guy Haines doesn't listen to his inner voice telling him just that. Under the influence of liquor and the lull of a moving train, he confides in Bruno, revealing his deep distaste for Miriam, his estranged, pregnant, wife.
Thus begins an unrelenting path of secrets, lies, obsession and murder. The fascination lies in Highsmith's ability to twist the everyday into nightmare. Strangers on a Train, is taut, well-crafted, and difficult to put down. It's a brilliant example of suspense done right, & a blueprint for legion's of mystery novels to come.