Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith

The weak and the mad…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Guy Haines is on a train to Texas, hoping that his estranged wife Miriam will finally give him the divorce he needs so that he can marry his new love, Anne. When another passenger, Charles Bruno, begins to chat to him, Guy little thinks that this is the beginning of an odd relationship which will eventually spiral into murder…

First published in 1950, this is one of the early examples of what we’d now call “psychological thrillers”. Bruno has a difficult relationship with his rich father who controls the purse strings. He suggests to Guy that they swap murders – that Bruno will murder the inconvenient Miriam if in return Guy will murder Bruno’s father. Guy tries to brush him off, but Bruno goes ahead with his part of the scheme. The thrust of the book is Bruno pressuring Guy to hold up his side of the bargain – a bargain Guy never agreed to, although he didn’t explicitly refuse it either. We see the psychological effect on Guy and eventually on Bruno too, as the plot plays out.

Two things combined to give me perhaps overly high expectations of this book. The first is its stellar reputation as a masterpiece of the form and as an influence on later generations of crime writers; the second is Hitchcock’s wonderful film adaptation, one of my favourite movies of all time. Having recently read quite a few of the books that Hitchcock adapted, I’ve realised that he often changed the plot almost out of all recognition, so I wasn’t surprised to find that that’s the case with this one too. While Hitch’s story is of a good man hounded by a crazy one, Highsmith’s version of Guy is of a weak and distinctly unlikeable character whose innate lack of moral strength is as much of an issue as Bruno’s possible insanity. Oddly, it reminded me far more of Hitch’s other great classic, Rope, in terms of the moral questions it poses.

Guy’s inability to deal with the moral dilemma and subsequent descent into a state of extreme anxiety is done brilliantly, and the psychology underpinning Bruno’s craziness is well and credibly developed. His unhealthy relationship with his mother in particular is portrayed with a good deal of subtlety – lots of showing rather than telling and, because we see it almost entirely through Bruno’s eyes, it’s handled with a good deal of ambiguity. However, the unlikeability of both characters made it hard for me to get up any kind of emotional investment in the outcome, especially as we don’t really get to know the potential second victim, Mr Bruno, Senior.

Challenge details:
Book: 95
Subject Heading: Across the Atlantic
Publication Year: 1950

Miriam is given more characterisation, but not much, and there’s a kind of suggestion that she brought her fate on herself by her sexual promiscuity. But she’s bumped off too quickly for the reader to develop any depth of feeling for her either way. Anne, Guy’s new love interest, is a cipher for most of the book – there merely to give Guy a motive for wishing to be rid of Miriam and, later, to give him something to lose. For the most part we see Anne solely through Guy’s eyes, as a kind of idealised opposite to Miriam, which makes her come over as rather passionless and insipid, and almost unbelievably trusting of this man that she clearly barely knows or comprehends (or she wouldn’t dream of marrying him). In the end stages, we do get to see things from her perspective briefly, but she never really comes to life as a distinct character in her own right.

Patricia Highsmith

The writing is very good, particularly when showing Guy’s increasing loss of grip on reality, but I found the pacing of the first half incredibly slow. Partly that may have been because I knew the story from the film, but the book seems to cover the same ground over and over again, with Guy angsting over his moral dilemma to the point where I didn’t care what he decided to do so long as he finally did something! However, the second half seems to flow much better and the tension ramps up, so that in the end I was glad I stuck with it.

As you’ll no doubt have realised by now, I’m not joining the legions of readers who have praised this unreservedly. For me, the unlikeability of the characters made it an intellectual rather an emotional read and, as I’ve said, the first half seemed to drag interminably. However, there’s plenty to enjoy in it, especially in the later stages when it picks up pace, and it definitely deserves its reputation as a classic for its originality at the time. So I certainly recommend it, both as a good read overall and because it’s always interesting to read a book that has been so influential on the genre.

Book 21 of 90

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50 thoughts on “Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith

  1. Really interesting review. I wonder if you might have felt differently if you’d not seen the film (which I agree is pretty wonderful)? Obviously impossible to answer that now! I recently read Highsmith’s Carol after having seen the film version but found luckily that the book gave me additional insight into the characters not in the film. However, once you’ve seen a film version it’s difficult not to see the actors in your head when reading the book. That’s why with fiction, I really prefer to read the book first, then see the film.

    • Thank you! I suspect I might well have felt differently. As I’ve been reading all these books that Hitchcock used, I’ve had a similar reaction with some of them that the first part drags, and I often think it’s because I know what’s going to happen. Fortunately Hitch changes the endings so much I don’t tend to have the same problem with the second half! Generally I prefer the books to the films, but quite often with Hitchcock I prefer the film – I just think he’s so great. And most of the time, I find his changes actually improve on the original. I think I’m biased though… 🙂

      • Haven’t read this one, but after seeing the award-winning film, Carol, a couple years back, and having come across Highsmith on a project I’m working on, I went to the library to pick up that novel. Some readers on such a quest might find it in the library, as I did, under its original title: The Price of Salt. For anyone who saw Carol, or read it under either name: Isn’t that a great title for Carol’s story? And I agree, the novel was very good under either title.

        Hitchcock would catch the flaws in almost any script, so none of us should be surprised that he remedied them in making Strangers on a Train. Another great title, by the way, and one The Master knew better than to change when making the wonderful film.

        • I’ve been meaning for ages to read Carol/The Price of Salt and then watch the film, and hopefully will get around to it one of these days. But I have a feeling Highsmith often goes for unlikeable characters and on the whole I prefer to have at least one that I care about – don’t have to love them, just need to care what happens to them…

          Yes, nearly every one of the book/film comparisons I’ve done on Hitchcock films, he’s either won outright or been equal. I often think the changes he makes are an improvement on the original. The exception is Vertigo, where I thought the book was considerably better from a psychological angle.

  2. This is interesting, I too am a big fan of the film but perhaps the book deserves my attention as well, at some point. I can always skim over the slow bits in the beginning 🙂 I do like a good, unhinged literary character or two, after all 🙂

  3. You make such an interesting point, FIctionFan, about the characters. None of them is really sympathetic. And yet, there’s something about the book that keeps you (or kept me, at any rate) interested in knowing what happens to them. I do like the way Highsmith lets us see how Haines gradually loses control of his own life, so to speak. It’s very well done.

    • Yes, I thought Haines’ descent into complete anxiety was very well done – the best bit of the book, in fact. I enjoyed the second half much more than the first half, but I do think my love for the film didn’t work to the book’s advantage on this occasion. If I’d read the book first, I’d probably be criticising the film!

  4. I haven’t read the book, but have seen the film again not that long ago. Our mystery group read or watched Strangers on a Train a year or so ago. It was paired with Peter Swanson’s The Kind Worth Killing, which uses the same theme. Was funny how many members were a bit freaked out by the scene with the carousel. I don’t think I’ll read the book now, not because of your review, but because I did like the movie a lot. And I’ve found that, for me, sometimes I do find the movie more to my taste. Nice discussion!

    • I love the carousel scene – that’s what makes the film one of my favourites. It’s the way the music speeds up and speeds up till it becomes manic. I can’t ever hear that song without seeing those plunging horses! I must admit I usually prefer the book to the film, except for Hitchcock films. I usually find the changes he makes actually improve on the original, and that’s how I felt about this one. Since I’m currently snowed in, I might just dig out the film and watch it again… 🙂

  5. I enjoyed reading your assessment, FF. I haven’t read the book, but I saw the movie. I also found the characters unlikable. I also saw another adaptation of a Patricia Highsmith novel–The Talented Mr. Ripley. Highsmith seemed to enjoy writing about psychologically damaged individuals!

    • I quite like Guy in the film though he’s a bit of a wimp. But I love the younger sister and that carousel scene at the end is brilliant. Ha – yes, I think she did specialise in those anti-hero types. I haven’t seen Mr Ripley – somehow I’m never really attracted to those kinds of characters. I need a goodie to root for… 🙂

    • I’m curious too! I’m sure my opinion of it was affected by the fact that I love the film so much, and they’re different in lots of ways. I still enjoyed it and think it’s well worth reading, though, so I hope you enjoy it. I’ll look forward to reading your review… 🙂

  6. I have always wanted to read this book and have always avoided it because of the movie. I am terrified it will not live up to my expectations as I love the film (well maybe just a little scared)

    • Yes, I think that’s what put me off reading it for so long. But while I personally didn’t enjoy it as much as the film, it’s still well worth reading…

  7. I read this – em, not yesterday, and I’m afraid it put me off Highsmith for life, so I haven’t read anything else of hers. As a teenager, I needed my goodies to be good, so couldn’t really sympathise with the plight of baddies doing bad. Maybe I should try it again sometime?

    • Yes, I struggle with unlikeable characters too. Well, it’s more if I can’t bring myself to care about the outcome, and that was the problem with this one. I did think it was worth reading in the end, but it hasn’t left me feeling inspired to seek out her other books…

  8. Another stellar review, FF! While I’m not sure this is one I want to read, perhaps it’s one I *should* read. After all, I can probably learn something from the too-intellectual characterization and the slow beginning pacing. I imagine I’d come away feeling just as you did though!

    • Thanks, Debbie! The thing is we’re all so used to fast-paced books now – this one might not have felt so slow back when it was new. Or maybe if I hadn’t already known the story from the film…

  9. This is on my Classics Club list as well, and I’ve never read a Highsmith before. I saw the movie not that long ago, as you may recall, and I wasn’t enamored with it, unfortunately. So maybe the book will work better for me? In any case, I look forward to reading it!

    • This was my first Highsmith too, and being honest I’m not overly inspired to seek out her other books. But I may well have reacted differently if I didn’t love the film so much, so maybe it will work better for you. Hope so! Although I still think you should re-watch the film… 😉

    • Me too! Or at the very least I need to care what happens to them and I didn’t much in this one. I’m sure it’s Emma’s unlikeability that makes it my least favourite Austen…

  10. I read this years ago and really enjoyed it, in fact it nearly made my Classic Club list but I was trying to limit my re-reads for that – I agree that whether you rate the characters/characterisation or not Patricia Highsmith definitely deserves the accolades on the originality of type of read.

    • Yes, I suspect that all the more recent, more fast paced psychological thrillers have given us different expectations now, plus my love for the movie almost certainly affected how I felt about the book. But I’m still glad I finally read it – definitely a classic!

  11. See, I read the book first and was terrorized by how slow the beginning rolled out. Bruno kept popping up everywhere, but not before the conversation between Guy and his wife during which she says she’s pregnant and could take him for everything. Things mounted, and I felt anxious. The film, though I enjoyed it, seemed to race past all that, so I felt more hopeful that things would work out happily instead of terrified.

    • I suspect my feeling about the slowness of the first half was at least partly because I knew from the film how it was going to play out. Once the book and the film diverged in the second half, I began to enjoy the book much more. But I’ll always prefer the film in this instance – I prefer Hitch’s good v bad characterisation…

    • Thank you! There are real differences between the film and the book even though they start with the same basic plot. For me, the film won this time, but then I’m always biased when it comes to Hitchcock… 🙂

  12. Hmmm this sounds like one of those books I ‘should’ read, even if it starts off a bit slow. I hadn’t heard of it before now, but perhaps i can just get away with watching the movie instead 🙂

    • It was only fairly recently that I realised the film was based on a book. Haha – the crime fiction fans will hate me for saying it, but I think the film’s better – go for it! 😉

  13. I tried to read Strangers on a Train when I was about 14 and obviously I was not the appropriate age to read such a book. I have never returned to the book ever since, but I think I should definitely give it a try this summer.

    • It’s well worth reading but I can quite see why it wouldn’t have worked for your younger self – it’s not nearly as child friendly as some of the old Golden Age mysteries, and it is quite slow. If you do get around to it, I hope you enjoy it!

  14. Brilliant review as ever. Will I read it probably not, but I must look out the film (which I think I’ve seen but can’t quite recall… 😉 ) I know what you mean about the dramatic changes from book to film when Hitchcock is involved. And I agree about the need to like at least one of the characters, be it book or film. (Emma is my least favourite Austen too, for the same reason as you.) But what stood out for me as I read your review was this:

    Challenge details:
    Book: 95
    Subject Heading: Across the Atlantic
    Publication Year: 1950

    I just love your record-keeping, FF! (And of course, now I’m thinking of how I might tweak mine to make it even more complicated – I mean *informative* :D)

    • Hahaha!! I must confess that on this occasion the list is not mine! The challenge is based on Martin Edwards’ list of 100 Classic Crime novels so all that info comes from him. But of course I do have a spreadsheet for it… 🤣

      Oh yes, you should watch the film again definitely! I think Hitch also understood that somebody should be likeable. In fact, the only film of his I can think of without a truly likeable main character is Vertigo, and it’s one of my least favourite of his films. No coincidence, I suspect!

  15. I really enjoyed this novel but like you I’d seen the wonderful film first, and I preferred the pacing of the film. I enjoy Highsmith’s awful characters though! (And how ridiculously handsome was Farley Granger?!)

    • I loved Farley Granger in it but I also thought the guy who played Bruno was strangely attractive too. So when the book started by describing Bruno as kinda ugly and with a giant boil sprouting out of his forehead my dreams were shattered! That may explain why the book didn’t have the same effect on me as the film…

  16. Fantastic review as always! I can’t believe I haven’t picked this up yet, I have another on my shelves that I’m really excited about though – Carol (which I think was originally called The Price Of Salt? May be wrong!) 😆

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