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The Classic Criss-Cross
on May 26, 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