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Strangers On A Train by Patricia Highsmith

February 15, 2012 11 comments

Stranger On A Train by Patricia Highsmith. 1950. French title: L’inconnu du Nord Express.

Strangers On a Train is one of the books Guy gave me for our virtual Christmas gifts. Hitchcock made this novel into a film in 1951, shortly after the novel was published. The film is very famous, so I suspect you already know the plot. Let me refresh your memory. 

Guy Haines is a young architect in his late twenties. He made a mistake when he was younger, marrying the vulgar and clinging Miriam, back there in his home town of Metcalf, Texas. Their marriage is a failure and they’ve been living apart for two years now, he in New York, she still in Metcalf.  

At the beginning of the book, Guy is on his way to Metcalf, to get a divorce. Miriam is pregnant with another man’s child and she intends to marry him. She’s eventually ready to agree on the divorce. Guy is impatient to get away with it, both because he loathes Miriam and wants her out of his life and because he’s in love with Anne and needs his freedom to marry her.  

He meets Charles Bruno on a train carriage to Metcalf. Bruno starts talking to him and Guy is too polite to object and get rid of him. Against his better judgement, he accepts to dine with him in his private carriage. Bruno is on his way to Santa Fe to meet his mother. He hates his father and wants him dead, mostly to put his hands on his fortune and have his mother to himself. Bruno adores his mother. Although he’s usually rather private, Guy confides in Bruno who quickly understands how convenient it would be if Miriam were dead. The craziest idea occurs to him and he suggests Guy that they plan the perfect murder. He would kill Miriam and Guy would kill Bruno Senior. Guy refuses and turns his back on him, appalled. They part.  

When Miriam is murdered a few weeks later, Guy suspects that Bruno did it. Bruno confirms his suspicion and now claims that Guy must pay him back and do his part of the bargain.  

From then on, Guy’s life turns into hell.  

The confrontation between the two men is uneven as Bruno is unbalanced and fights dirty. I found the two characters complex and perfectly drawn. Patricia Highsmith excels in pealing of layers after layers of thoughts and feelings, exploring the minds of our two murderers.  

Bruno is a crazy man and his motives are based on muddy feelings. We are in an Oedipal story: he wants his father killed to have his mother. He loathes women in general and yet can’t stay away from Guy, even if it’s imprudent to contact him as the basis of their perfect murder is the impossibility for the police to make a connection between the two of them. The following quote is typical of Bruno’s behaviour and attitude towards life:  

I mean you’re serious and you choose a profession. Like architect. Me, I don’t feel like working. I don’t have to work, see? I’m not a writer or a painter or a musician. Is there any reason a person should work if they don’t have to? I’ll get my ulcers the easy way. My father has ulcers. Hah! He still has hopes I’ll enter his hardware business. I tell him his business, all business, is legalized throat-cutting, like marriage is legalized fornication.

I think Bruno is in love with Guy. We are in 1950 and Patricia Highsmith doesn’t write it openly but there are enough hints. Perhaps it’s such a taboo that Bruno can’t admit it to himself either. Bruno coaxes Guy into killing Bruno Senior. He appears out of thin air, crashes at Guy’s wedding with Anne, telephones at home, at the office, writes letters. He threatens to tell the truth to Anne or to the police, follows Guy at work. He pushes Guy over the edge.

The novel shows how Bruno slowly but surely breaks up Guy.  

Guy is an honest man, deep inside. He’s a quiet, serious man, climbing the social ladder thanks to his gift for architecture and his wedding with Anne. He’s deeply in love with her, a requited love by the way. She’s his anchor in real life when things get out of control with Bruno. Guy’s leading a double life. On the one hand, he’s a promising architect, his career is taking off and he’s busy building a life with Anne and designing creative buildings. On the other hand, he’s consumed with guilt and always on edge because of Bruno’s looming presence.  

Bruno tortures him, not physically of course, but mentally. Guy’s an fascinating character, serious, shy, professional and creative. His creativity relies on his ability to imagine the people who will use the building he’s drawing and to design an artistic line without neglecting the practicalities. It’s an interesting side of his character, it reveals his concern for other people and explains his anguish and his guilt. He’s split into two.  

Patricia Highsmith explores an intriguing idea: do we all have a murdered lurking in ourselves, ready to come out were our public self threatened enough. We all live with a dark side and here’s Guy thinking about it:  

But love and hate, he thought now, 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 a reason against it, every animal an animal that destroys it, the male the female, the positive the negative. The slitting 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. Could space exist in a building without objects that stopped it? Could energy exist without matter, or matter without energy? Matter and energy, the inert and the active, once considered opposites, were now to be one. 

Highsmith’s style is amazing. Precise. Imaginative. Literary. She builds the tension in the story, adding one detail to the other, slowly driving the characters to the inevitable. I loved the Trollope Guy chose for me, this one is also excellent. Thanks Guy, now I’m looking forward to reading An Awfully Big Adventure by Beryl Bainbridge.

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