Patricia Highsmith is probably most well known for her novel The Price of Salt, or Carol as it is alternatively titled. I read (and reviewed) Carol a while ago and adored it. If you’re unfamiliar, it’s the story of the relationship between a young shop attendant, Therese, and a beautiful, wealthy older woman named Carol. Carol was made into a film a few years back, starring Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett. It’s a really beautifully crafted film, so I’d recommend you check it out if you want some heartbreaking 1950s lesbian content. What else did I know about Highsmith before I read this book? I knew she once said she never wanted to be the kind of author who always wrote the same type of book. And if The Price of Salt and Strangers on a Train are anything to go by, she is not.
Strangers on a Train is a psychological-thriller-crime-noir-murder-mystery. Emphasis on the psychological. Guy Haines, architect, is on his way to meet his estranged wife, Miriam, to demand a divorce. On the train, he meets Charles Bruno, maniac. Guy is unable to shake Bruno, a theme that continues throughout the book. Uninvited, Bruno explains his idea for the perfect murder: two unrelated people, each killing for the other. Bruno wants his father dead and, after hearing Guy’s reasons for travelling, decides Guy must want his wife dead. The perfect companion for the perfect murder. Guy refuses to entertain Bruno, but of course the story doesn’t end there. When Guy’s wife is murdered days after the meeting of the two men, Guy has his suspicions.
This, of course, is where the story really begins. One of the critiques I’ve seen of this book is that it’s too long, but I think that’s needed for Guy’s character development. By choosing to make this a 250 page novel, instead of a short story, Highsmith allows us to really get into Guy’s head as he breaks down. Bruno’s manipulation of him is drawn out, torturous, so it only makes sense that the book should be the same. The relationship between the two men is constantly morphing and changing. They hate each other, they love each other, they are like brothers, they are acquaintances, they are obsessed with each other. These are all true, perhaps all at the same time. Their relationship becomes more and more complex throughout the book, as their lives are more and more intertwined by Bruno’s determination to be a part of Guy’s life.
As the book goes on, Guy starts to take on more of Bruno’s characteristics, as his mind is poisoned by the manipulation. They are both constantly on one another’s minds: Guy has nightmares starring Bruno, and Bruno often mutters Guy’s name in a stupor. The fascination Bruno has for Guy is inexplicable, which for me was one of the most disturbing parts of this novel. Guy’s first and only real mistake was to speak to Bruno on the train. Bruno’s obsession sprang out of nowhere after that one interaction. Despite Guy and Bruno growing closer and closer together during this book, they still retain distinct voices and personalities. While I did not in any way predict how this would end, it made perfect sense to me, which is a sign of good character development.
I also found it interesting to read a murder-mystery type book from the perspective of the murderer. For the audience, there is no mystery, but the real thrill is in the effect the murder has on the two central characters. The moral dilemma, of course, is Guy’s to bear: Bruno has no morals. Bruno uses the murder to keep his hold over Guy, and arguably, this is actually his main motive for committing it in the first place. He’s less interested in manipulating Guy to maintain his end of the bargain Bruno thinks the men struck, and more interested in forcing Guy to be a part of his life, but the ‘bargain’ is the only way he knows how.
So, the characters were great, the pacing was right, and the idea was a fun twist on the genre. I didn’t think the writing style was as impressive as Carol, but Strangers on a Train was published much earlier, in fact it was her debut. It’s very readable, and does a good job of portraying the effect of the mind games on Guy, but it didn’t particularly stand out to me. This was the only real place where the book fell down for me, and it didn’t affect my enjoyment of it much because of the excellent characterisation. I did enjoy reading a genre that I wouldn’t usually pick up, though, and I think I would like to read a bit more crime/murder mystery in future. I have an Agatha Christie book and, well, what better murder mystery author is there?
Rating: 4 stars.
Have you read any classic murder mysteries or crime fiction? What do you think of noir? Let me know!