Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith [Book Review]
I read Strangers on a Train because it was a book club choice in the office. The synopsis gives an intriguing premise, and I sometimes read crime stories (I’ve just downloaded the first four Cadfael stories, and I enjoyed the Ian Rankin novels I’ve read). Strangers on a Train was a contemporary crime novel when it was fit published in 1950. So I thought I’d give it a go.
Strangers on a Train
The premise is of two strangers on a train who get talking and eventually agree to murder someone for the other person. The idea is that because they aren’t linked to the murder victim then they’ll get away with the crime. It’s set about 1950, so forensic science doesn’t come into the equation.
Strangers on a Train is crammed with detail, and there is a lot of description going on. That makes it lack pace, to a modern reader it seems to beat about the bush and go off on diversions a lot. I felt a lot of the description could have been edited out quite safely. That said it probably helped with visuals, which would account for it becoming a film very soon after publication.
Frankly, I didn’t really get gripped by Strangers on a Train. It took some effort to read it. If it hadn’t been for the book club meeting I wouldn’t have persevered with it. However it developed well in the second half of the story. It was a typical 1950 crime story, in that you could see that the two protagonists suffered as a result of their crime. Guy slowly falls apart after his wife is killed by Bruno, even though he’d refused to take part in the deal. Bruno helps this along with his prodding and stalker-ish behaviour. This mental breakdown leads to Guy fulfilling his part of the ‘bargain’.
Guy is a fairly ordinary character, but seems to lack any common sense or logic. He’s an architect, so ought to be well enough educated that he could think his way through things. It isn’t clear why Guy doesn’t just tell the police about Bruno when he begins to suspect that he killed his wife. There would have been a little unpleasantness for Guy, but he’s unlikely to have been convicted given that he hadn’t agreed to the murder. Especially if he was the one that identified Bruno.
Bruno is a drunk dilettante waiting to inherit. He’s a spoilt kid that has turned into a sociopath. He is the real criminal in the book, the one that has the idea, carries it through and haunts Guy to murder his father. Even when the deed is done, Bruno’s erratic behaviour is what leads to them being caught.