Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Strangers on a Train

Strangers on a Train. Patricia Highsmith. 1950. 281 pages.

The train tore along with an angry, irregular rhythm. It was having to stop at smaller and more frequent stations, where it would wait impatiently for a moment, then attack the prairie again.

Strangers on a Train was both compelling and repelling. On the one hand, I think the characterization of the "hero" (Guy Haines) and his nemesis (Charlie Bruno) was intriguing. Disturbing and super-creepy, but effectively so. I think the whole point of the novel was to show what could be lurking deep inside (or not-so-deep inside, perhaps just barely under the surface) of the person sitting next to you, the stranger.

Guy Haines is an architect taking a not-so-pleasant trip back to his small hometown in Texas. He meets a stranger on a train. The stranger--Charles Bruno--asks him to join him for dinner and a couple of drinks. Guy doesn't really want to be social. He's feeling cranky and anti-social. He's thinking about his wife, Miriam, who is carrying another man's baby, and his girlfriend, Anne, who happens to be going to Mexico on vacation. He isn't in love with his wife--they've been separated quite a while. He's anxious to get a divorce more than anything else. He's not at his emotional best though. So reluctantly, perhaps to avoid thinking or over-thinking things, he agrees to spend some time with this stranger. This was his first mistake, the mistake that would cost him almost everything in the end.
Why? Well, Bruno is all kinds of evil. And he's not even all that subtle about being evil and creepy.  I mean here is a guy that goes around muttering about how he wants to murder his father, how he has all these plans and schemes to kill his father, how he's just looking for the best way to kill his father so that he doesn't get caught. It's like he's got a one-track mind, and murder is all he can talk about. I honestly can't remember if the dialogue went from "do you want to have a drink with me?" to "do you want to kill my father for me?" in a matter of seconds, minutes, or hours. But. Guy has all the signs right in front of him that he should have been able to read properly. But. For whatever reason, he stays, he listens, he doesn't react. Somehow or other--perhaps before the murder babbling begins--Bruno learns that Guy is on a trip to see his wife. He also learns that she's pregnant. That she's been cheating on Guy for quite a while. Did Guy volunteer all this information willingly? Or did it come out piece by piece by piece by piece? Did Bruno keep pestering him with questions? Well, I'm not sure. Even if it was voluntary on his part. Even if Guy was talking about his wife, it was not with the intent that the stranger on the train should kill her. Because as Guy learns, this is where the conversation is headed. Bruno has  a plot, a plan. He would just love, love, love to kill Miriam. It would make him oh-so-happy to do this as a complete-and-total favor for his new-best-buddy, Guy. Haines was so not expecting this ultra-weird, ultra-creepy offer. And he does say, no, thank you, I don't want my wife murdered. And, I'm not the murdering type. I don't know what you think you see in me. But I'm not the guy. I'm not the one you want to kill your father. I don't want to murder anyone, anywhere. But the obsession has become all-too-firmly-planted in Bruno's mind.

Strangers on a Train is a tragic suspense, a psychological thriller. Haines' sanity is tested in the upcoming months after Bruno murders his wife, after Bruno continues to haunt him--first by letters, then in person. Wherever he goes, Bruno is there watching him, trying to talk to him, trying to coerce or bully him into murdering his father. Bruno starts pestering the people close to him too. Bruno is an obsessed stalker-blackmailer with a history of murder. Haines is worried what will happen if he doesn't murder Bruno's father.

Strangers on a Train reminded me so very much of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. Except that the creature-figure Bruno is so not sympathetic not by any, any, any stretch of the imagination. And the Victor-Frankenstein-figure, Guy Haines, is actually sympathetic for most of the novel.

To read more of my thoughts, visit my GoodReads review.

Read Strangers on a Train
  • If you're looking to read a classic mystery/suspense/thriller novel of the 1950s
  • If you've seen the movie and are interested in now reading the book
  • If you enjoy psychological elements in your novel; Highsmith created some twisted, disturbed characters
© 2012 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

1 comment:

Unknown said...

This is one of my all time favourite Hitchcock movies! It has some absolute classic b/w cinematic photography scenes and I think Stewart Granger was an awesome actor.

I've always wanted to read this but I but I love psychological thrillers too.

Hey, Dibyoj visited me this am too!