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
on June 14, 2000
I cannot believe that A) only one Amazon customer has written areview of this book or that B) it is out of print! WHAT! This is,quite simply, one of the finest novels I have ever read. It was as tough to put down as any other book I've encountered, and at times as profound as Shakespeare. I've yet to discover any other writer besides Highsmith whose books are both absolutely riveting and thoroughly penetrating about the human condition. At times, it was so suspenseful I thought I was going to have a heart attack. The only other experience I've had in life that was as ravaging as this book is sex. Yet despite its at-times horrifying suspense, it is excruciatingly compassionate; the ending made me weep. Highsmith's characters are unbelievably real; I still can't figure out how she makes us care so much about people who are so flawed and sinful. It's as close to the divine as a writer can get. WOULD SOMEBODY PLEASE PUT THIS BOOK BACK IN PRINT SO I CAN GIVE A COPY TO EVERYONE I KNOW! END
on February 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.
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!
I don't know why it surprises me to discover that Hollywood has tampered with a novel. Having only seen the Hitchcock film scripted by Raymond Chandler, I was blown away by this early classic from Highsmith. Pretty much the first third of the novel has ended up on screen, but it would seem that Hitch and his associates simply didn't read the rest. Almost everything about this story has been changed. I like the story as Highsmith wrote it. She is a master of suspence. The characters are well drawn and full of ambiguity. Like most everything else I've read by Highsmith, this is both gripping and unnerving. I loved it.
on December 29, 2002
I am quite fond of Patricia Highsmith's writing, having, like so many others, been introduced to her through her Ripley series. I am thrilled that Norton decided to republished most of her lesser-known novels and stories, many of which I have read already, the others of which top my reading to-do list. The greatest problem with this edition is the annoying presence of frequent typos and less frequent grammatical errors. I found myself having to go back to figure out the meaning of a sentence to discover one of the words was obviously incorrect. I understand that the publishers were probably rushing to get this edition on the market so that they could capitalize from The Talented Mr. Ripley's box-office sucess; nevertheless, the sloppiness distracts from the enjoyment experienced in reading Highsmith's other works.
With that said, Strangers on a Train lives up to its reputation as a significant first effort by Highsmith. Those familiar with her work will recognize the beginnings of themes she continues to explore throughout her life. Primarily, this work presents a sympathetic murderer-- like Ripley-- a person who, the reader believes has to murder. Like Flannery O'Connor, Highsmith has an uncanny ability to place us in the minds of characters who face circumstances that seemingly force them to do unthinkable things. She follows with guilt-- or lack thereof-- that confronts characters based on the strength of their conscience. It reminds us that often the worst decisions are made at times when the choice seemed rational under the circumstances.
I have yet to view Hitchcock's take on this novel. It is, undoubtedly, immensely difficult to portray a story that takes place mostly inside the characters minds on the big screen. For that reason alone, those who have seen the movie should consider reading this book.
Bruno was not the ordinary stranger on a train by any means. -Strangers on a Train
The world of Patricia Highsmith is one in which the nice young man you ask to help find your son may instead kill him and take his place, where the cop you ask to help find your missing dog may turn out to be just as disturbed as the dognapper, and where the stranger you meet on a train may be a complete sociopath. In this, her first novel, famously made into a movie by Alfred Hitchcock, Guy Haines wants to divorce his estranged wife, Miriam, and has finally been presented with the pretext for doing so, as she's pregnant by another man. This will enable him to marry Ann and enjoy his burgeoning success as an architect. But then he meets a talkative stranger named Bruno, Charles Bruno, on a train. Bruno, the ne'er do well son of wealthy parents, wants to get rid of his father, who refuses to indulge Bruno's lazy but expensive lifestyle. He shares his troubles with Guy who in turn makes the mistake of telling Bruno about Miriam. As fate would have it, Bruno has an idea for the perfect murder, actually a double murder : two strangers could "swap" murders, each killing the person that the other wishes done away with, which would make the crimes seem motiveless, and therefore nearly impossible to solve.
Guy is quite naturally put off by the suggestion, though perhaps not as entirely as he should be. No matter how much he hates Miriam, the prospect of the divorce blunts his desire to see her dead. But when she finds out how important his pending commission is, and that his career is poised to take off, she decides not to let him go. Meanwhile, Bruno takes matters into his own hands, quite literally, and suddenly Guy is implicated in a murder whether he wants to be or not.
The book is significantly different than the film, so even fans of the movie will be in for a new experience. For Highsmith fans there's all the expected creepiness, from the threatening possibilities of every day life to homosexual undertones to the plasticity of identity, as Guy has essentially become Bruno by novel's end. Whatever depths of depravity she contained within herself to draw upon, no one has ever written better about the criminally deranged mind than Patricia Highsmith.
GRADE : A-
on October 30, 2003
...than the movie! As I recall it, the character of Bruno never develops in the movie beyond that of a randomly-met psychopath; the portrayal of Guy, for that matter, is rather limited as well. I suppose that the nature of cinema is responsible rather than any failing on the part of Hitchcock; in fact, I've always loved the movie, but the novel has a real gut-wrenching impact, particularly for any reader who has ever suffered from panic attacks. One gets much more of a sense why both major characters feel and act the way they do, and how anyone can find themselves closer to doing the unthinkable than they would ever have believed possible. An altogether harrowing vision of guilt and isolation!
on October 23, 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!
on January 30, 2008
The Fiction Writer should put tension on every page of a novel, in every scene, and select every word to forward that tension. Patricia Highsmith's debut novel, Strangers on a Train, could be a textbook to these principles. From the first line, "The train tore along with an angry irregular rhythm." she keeps the reader off balance and anticipating with dread every new scene. It's fantastic.
On a train, Guy Haines sits next to Charles Anthony Bruno. Bruno forcefully intrudes on architect Guy's life and then proposes a unique solution for Guy's marital quandary, Bruno will kill Miriam, Guy's wife if Guy kills Bruno's father; neither of them will have a motive, and the police will have no reason to suspect either of them. Then Guy can marry Anne Morton, the woman he loves and Guy can get his inheritance. Perfect, brilliant, and insane.
The true plot isn't in this scenario, however. The true plot is in Guy feeling trapped by circumstance, seeing half the plan realized and then being forced to comply, to murder, to embrace the idea after initially rejecting it, and then wracked with guilt over all the turns and twists in this complex noir story. The true plot is Guy searching to moralize his deed. It's Guy reaching for his soul.
Hitchcock missed the mark with this one. The movie was good, but is only a shadow of the book's well-crafted tale.
- CV Rick