“Strangers on a Train” by Patricia Highsmith

Strangers on a Train

I was alerted to this book by the recent write-up of The Kind Worth Killing, which was seemingly inspired by Strangers on a Train. While I had not read any books by Patricia Highsmith before, I have seen other movies based on her novels including The Talented Mr. Ripley and Carol, both of which were very good. Strangers on a Train was her first novel and it was made into a movie by none other than Alfred Hitchcock shortly after it was published in 1950. The book, therefore, came with an impressive back story and I was prepared to be wowed, especially given that I enjoy thrillers in general.

The plot line of Strangers on a Train is very intriguing. Two men, Guy and Bruno, meet on a train, they both have someone in their lives they’re unhappy with, but instead of “sucking it up” as most people do, one of the men, Bruno, floats the idea of getting rid of their respective nemeses by doing exchange murders — he would kill Guy’s ex-wife and Guy, in turn, would kill his father. Like most people, Guy shies away from Bruno when he proposes this plan and is very happy to see the last of him when the train journey ends. Or so he thinks. Bruno actually goes ahead with killing Guy’s ex-wife, and subsequently keeps up the pressure on Guy to carry out the exchange murder — kill his father. Ultimately, Guy caves in and does it, but his life subsequently becomes a living hell, plagued by guilt and Bruno’s continued presence in his life. Because it turns out that Bruno is a psychopath and cannot leave Guy alone, despite the fact that Guy ultimately succumbed to his pressure and killed his father.

Strangers on a Train is really a psychological thriller, and it does a great job in capturing Guy’s perspective, starting from his chance meeting with Bruno on a train, his desire to get away after Bruno proposes his bizarre “exchange murder” idea, his consternation at the murder of his ex-wife and his horror at the growing realization that Bruno might be responsible, his dread once Bruno starts stalking him, the constant pressure from Bruno that makes him eventually kill Bruno’s father, and living in constantly torment and dread after the murder. In contrast, we don’t get inside Bruno’s mind that much and cannot really understand why he does what he does.

I found Strangers on a Train an enjoyable read in parts, but not particularly gripping. The premise of the story was more interesting than its execution — it was not very well developed, and the end was especially disappointing. The writing style was also quite pedestrian, which didn’t help to redeem the book. Overall, it seems like the kind of book which could be made into a good movie by a talented director, rather than a book that can be enjoyed in and of itself.

Strangers on a Train
Author: Patricia Highsmith
Original Publisher and Date: Harper & Brothers, 1950
Reprint Publisher and Date: W. W. Norton & Company Norilana Books Norilana Books, August 2001

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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