Strangers on a Train

By Patricia Highsmith. I finished this novel today for one of my book clubs. It was OK, interesting premise, but no characters to root for, not even a fun bad guy, just a slog toward the inevitable.  Don’t really understand why a few pages contained sloppy typos; that was an unsolved mystery. Nevertheless there were several chewy philosophical meanderings that saved the book for me, such as the following…

But love and hate, he thought now, good and evil, lived side by side in the human heart, and not merely in differing proportions in one man and the next, but all good and all evil. One had merely to look for a little of either to find it all, one had merely to scratch the surface. 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. [page 180]

Cool, wot?

However I’m not sure I agree with the premise the novel hinges on to begin with: that a murderous psycho can find a kindred soul pretty easily. But we don’t really know until we’re tested, do we? I mean, have you ever been hounded and blackmailed by a lunatic for months on end until you can’t function? No? So, you can’t say what you won’t do, ooh.

Except there was always the option of going to the cops. (Which would have wrecked the whole book.) Highsmith weakly covers why the second man, who does have a conscience, didn’t go to the police instead of following along, but I didn’t find it compelling enough.

We have to watch out for that in romance writing as well — the convoluted plot that could have been resolved halfway through by one of the protags asking a simple question or taking a reasonable action. But, OK, this second Train dude is supposed to be slimy, not a hero, so that’s different. I guess.

Anyway, it’s good for me to read out of genre, not that I’ll probably pick up another Highsmith novel after this (though I bet Hitchcock did a fine job on the film). I’m looking forward to the meeting at the end of the month.


9 responses to “Strangers on a Train

  1. Hitchcock did a fine job indeed on the film – it’s one of my favorites. Prolly a rare case of the movie being better than the book.


  2. HIghsmith was keen on looking beneath the surface opf the bad guy, which she went on to do at some length in the Ripley novels. It’s true that there’s nobody to root for in Strangers, but that had long been the case in crime fiction, at least as far back as Hammett and probably further. Nobody, essentially, is a hero any more. The best you can hope for is a spark of humanity, and a spark is all you get. Guy feels guilty and Bruno doesn’t at all. So little to choose they might be political candidates.

    Hitchcock made a super suspense movie, but he messed with Highsmith’s plot to let Guy off the hook, probably because Farley Granger was too popular at the time to have a murder pinned on him.

    I think the reason Guy doesn’t go to the police is that it’s too late by the time he realises how serious Bruno is about going through with the wacky plan. I think until then Guy thought it was all idle imaginings.


  3. Aren’t most mysteries really about the detective’s own demons, the plot a device to expose those along the way to the crime solution?

    I just started The Great Leader: a Faux Mystery, by the great Jim Harrison. Didn’t know he wrote mysteries, except all novels are sort of mysteries when you think about it.

    But I can’t get past the odd sentences. “He pulled off the highway near Marquette and bought a pasty, a Cornish meat pie, for dinner then ended up eating the pasty in his driveway in front of his darkened house thinking the microwave would ruin the crunch of its crust. Previously well trained he had become a slob in the three years since his divorce.” I dunno. Is he mocking the genre conventions? Maybe I’ll figure that out if I can make it past page 7.


  4. Looks like a simple case of comma deprivation to me.


  5. We have to watch out for that in romance writing as well — the convoluted plot that could have been resolved halfway through by one of the protags asking a simple question or taking a reasonable action.

    I *hate* this. It is probably my biggest peeve as a reader. I find it prevalent most in crime type scenarios and fantasies (sorry J.K., but Harry Potter books are bad for this), where the villain’s plan is convoluted purely for the sake of plot, when it’s obvious that he could end the story on page 4 by just doing it in a simpler way.

    I’m even okay with writers doing this as long as they come up with a reason I can live with, and acknowledge and explain it through the story. Give me a reason, any reason, that we’re protecting the Magical Object of Certain World Doom from those who would use it for Great Evil, instead of just, say, smashing it, and I’ll meet you halfway. But just ignoring it and hoping we won’t notice is such lazy writing.


  6. The film is excellent — but what I really recommend, for the best double feature ever, is first Strangers on a Train , and then a film called Throw Momma from the Train . Seriously, it’s the best night of film you’ll ever have.


  7. I liked that quote but something about it doesn’t ring true to me, even though i think he has come across something interesting there.

    I am reading the Stephen King novel about some kind of time traveler who wants to keep LHO from shooting JFK, and there is a similar problem there–he seems to be going to a great, convoluted deal of trouble to stop Oswald when at the same time acknowledging the “butterfly effect” but never stopping to figure out a way to veer the course of history off early by changing something small early on. King introduces a device that makes that implausible, so there’s your semi-lame excuse for the whole 800 pages.


    • I’m reading that book right now, Roy! I find the “smaller” quest to save Harry’s family much more interesting than the whole Kennedy thing, which doesn’t really grab me. I did enjoy the appearance by the kids from It. 🙂


  8. I just finished dragging myself through “Before I Go to Sleep”, a novel by S. J. Watson. It was about a woman with acute memory loss. Unfortunately, it was about the same experience you describe reading “Strangers on a Train”. It was less and less interesting as it went along. Oh well. On to “Vulture Peak”, the 5th installment in John Burdett’s series about the adventures of Sonchai Jitpleecheep, aspiring Buddhist police detective in fiendishly corrupt, crazy, wonderful Bangkok and beyond.


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