Review: Strangers on a Train

Strangers on a Train
Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
What a fascinating book. To admit something horrible, not only had I never read the book before, but I’ve never seen the Hitchcock film, either. Closest I’ve come is Throw Momma from the Train which is a far cry from Highsmith’s original novel. Even the film seems to stray quite a bit from the original text. The original text, though, might be worth a revisit in cinematic form.

In the book, Guy Haines is an up and coming architect, estranged from his wife Miriam, but in love with the beautiful Anne, a designer. On a trip from New York to Metcalf, Texas in order to procure a divorce, Guy meets Charles Bruno, a trust fund drunkard with a fascination for death. As the two share a drink and later dinner, Bruno reveals a plan he’s been working on for a while. In fact, he’s got a number of “foolproof” murder schemes he’s been itching to implement and one of them happens to be the idea of swapping murders – in this case, Guy would kill Bruno’s overbearing, philandering father while Bruno would do the same for Guy’s similar spirited wife. Since neither would have a motive for their respective killings, the police wouldn’t suspect them and freedom, with all it implies, would await.

Guy wants no part of this, but the slightly unhinged Bruno see’s it as his big chance and goes ahead and fulfills his half of the bargain while Guy is in Mexico visiting Anne.

From there, things go maddeningly, wonderfully, off the rails. Bruno insists Guy upholds his end of the deal and Guy, for his part, goes along. While initially this can be explained as a fear of complicity (Bruno has threatened to both turn Guy in as well as expose him to Anne), eventually, the murder of Bruno’s father becomes an act performed through Guy’s body but with Bruno’s actions. As the book progresses, the two men become inextricably intertwined, as if mirror images of each other, but switching sides often enough to never know which is in the light and which the darkness.

Strangers was Highsmith’s first novel and it shows the beginnings of things which would become trademarks in her career. It’s violent and thoughtful, meditating on issues of morality and conscience and it plays with the concept of the doppelgänger. For Highsmith, identity is a fluid construction, even more so than the Los Angeles axiom “you are what you say you are” in Highsmith’s hands, who you are reflects a real world model: you are who other people say you are. Guy is not the same person with Anne as he is with Bruno. The same way we are not the same people with different groups of friends. We may all be facets of of the whole, but no one will ever see that whole, it’s impossible.

And thus these characters are never truly whole. We get to see aspects of them, perceptions as they float through their existence but in the end, Guy and Bruno almost feel like two side of the same coin, they mesh like a zipper becoming as close to a whole as we can see, but only in terms of the roles they fulfill for each other. This isn’t to say there is a cognitive break, Guy never really feels like he is Bruno, but just the same, understands they both slot into the same space. All of this, too, also has undercurrents of a homosexual relationship which Bruno never admits to, but is desperately in need of.

By the end of the book, there have been so many turns and twists, both of plot and of personality, as a reader we’re not sure which way is up, and that’s a good thing.
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