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Strangers on a Train

Book by Patricia Highsmith

Book by Patricia Highsmith

“The train tore along with an angry, irregular rhythm.  It was having to stop at smaller and more frequent stations, where it would wait impatiently for a moment, then attack the prairie again.”

Guy Haines is on that train thinking about divorcing his wife, Miriam.  In a matter of moments, he will meet Charles Anthony Bruno and talk of murder.  “Ever feel like murdering someone?” Bruno asks Guy.  These two strangers on a train will “trade” murders in Patricia Highsmith’s now classic psychological thriller.

Published in 1950, Strangers on a Train was Highsmith’s first novel and a nominee for the Edgar Award.  A year later, Alfred Hitchcock adapted the novel for the silver screen.  In many ways, the film has overshadowed the book.  Today, more people are likely to recall the plot from having seen the movie rather than having read, or being aware of, the book.

There is, however, a key difference between the two.  In the film, Guy is a pro tennis player, and one could question whether or not Bruno may have known of Guy and perhaps followed his career prior to their meeting on the train.  Whereas, in the book, Guy is an architect whose career has yet to take off.  In the book, there is no question that Guy and Bruno are strangers.

And being strangers is the key as Bruno points out.  ” ‘Hey!  Cheeses, what an idea!  We murder for each other, see?  I kill your wife and you kill my father!  We meet on a train, see, and nobody knows we know each other!  Perfect alibis!  Catch?’ ”

Guy doesn’t exactly agree to the plan.  “Guy lurched against the walls of green curtain as he made his way to his berth.”  He’s left Bruno behind.  In the morning, he doesn’t even bother to retrieve his book—he’d been reading Plato before meeting Bruno—which he’d left behind in Bruno’s private car.

Bruno, however, doesn’t let the idea go.  He takes advantage of knowing when Guy will be out of town to hop a train to Metcalf, Texas.  There, he tracks down Miriam, follows her to an amusement park, and kills her.

When Guy refuses to acknowledge Bruno after his wife’s murder.  At first he’s incredulous that Bruno has actually done the deed.  “Guy struggled to find a definite answer about Bruno — had he or hadn’t he? — and then he gave up.  There was too much incredible in the possibility that Bruno had done it.”  It isn’t long, though, before he realizes the truth.  And Bruno continues to harass him.  Bruno became “the name that haunted him…”  Bruno increasingly insinuates himself into Guy’s life and psyche until Guy is forced to follow through with his part of “the plan.”

Much has been written about the relationship between Guy and Bruno, suggesting that there is a subtext of homosexuality, but it really isn’t so simple.  At the beginning of the story, Guy is “aware of an impulse to tell Bruno everything, the stranger on the train who would listen, commiserate, and forget.”

Later, now free to marry Anne, Guy realizes there “was only a part of himself he had to cope with, not his whole self, not Bruno, or his work.  He had merely to crush the other part of himself, and live in the self he was now.”  “But there were too many points at which the other self could invade the self he wanted to preserve, and there were too many forms of invasion: certain words, sounds, lights, actions…”

Not only does this passage potentially support the homosexual subtext, it touches on the duality of nature, a theme which is strongly threaded throughout the book.  In one philosophical moment, Guy reasons, “love and hate … good and evil, lived side by side in the human heart, and not merely in differing proportions in one man and the next…  One had merely to look for a little of either to find it all … All things had opposites close by, every decision a reason against it, every animal an animal that destroys it, the male the female, the positive the negative.”

Even Bruno, who believes “the bond between Guy and him now was closer than brotherhood”, touches on this duality in talking to Anne.  “I was thinking of what Guy always says, about the doubleness of everything.  You know, the positive and negative, side by side.  Every decision has a reason against it.”  He goes on to say, “There’s also a person exactly the opposite of you, like the unseen part of you, somewhere in the world, and he waits in ambush.”

In a way, the meeting of these two strangers on a train becomes a catalyst for these men to surpass the doldrums of their respective lives.  Guy is caught in a faithless marriage that threatens a burgeoning career.  Bruno, though a sociopath, drifts along in a comfortable life that has trapped him and prevents him from becoming his own man.  Their meeting allows each man to escape his predicament, but ultimately dooms them.

After all, Guy and Bruno are not very different.  They both have thoughts of murder to free themselves.  Whereas Guy cannot bring himself to cross that moral boundary, Bruno has no such compunctions.  As Guy realizes early on, Bruno suffers from “the desperate boredom of the wealthy … It tended to destroy rather than create.  And it could lead to crime as easily as privation.”  Bruno is only prevented from murdering his father because he knows he can’t get away with it.  His father’s detective, Arthur Gerard, will know he did it.  Thus, meeting Guy frees the sociopathic Bruno to kill, and frees Guy from his moral compass.

Though it’s never explicitly stated, Guy’s guilt grows over the course of the story because he simply didn’t say, “No,” when it mattered most.  He dosen’t sanction Bruno’s plan to kill, but he doesn’t flat out reject it either.  His passive agreement, and his later silence, condemn him.  Why shouldn’t he go through with his part and kill Bruno’s father since he has already, in effect, committed murder?

It’s interesting to note that, when Bruno threatens to tell Anne everything, Guy asks her what she would do if he were accused of being involved in his wife’s murder.  ” ‘At times like this,’ she said quietly, ‘you make me feel we’re complete strangers.’ ”

And that’s precisely what it comes down to: how much we are strangers to each other and ourselves.

Highsmith’s psychological thriller is holds your attention and is worth your time.  Personally, I prefer Hitchcock’s ending.  However, the denouement for Guy in the book is more fitting and in keeping with the narrative presented.

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