Published in 1950, Strangers on a Train is a noir thriller that was made famous when Alfred Hitchcock turned it into a film. I’ll say that the movie disappointed me, especially because it is so different from the novel and loses all of the tension, but Hitchcock is known for mutilating authors’ novels and short stories in a way he finds satisfactory. Only Rebecca was saved by David O. Selznick, the producer, lurking around and keeping Hitch in line.
Guy Haines, an architect, is on his way to Texas to get a divorce from Miriam, who has been sleeping around for years. They’ve been separated so long that Guy is engaged to Anne, but Miriam hasn’t finalized the divorce.
On the train, Guy randomly meets Charles Bruno, a drunken playboy who is possessive of his mother and hates his father. Bruno is both enigmatic and horrid, described as bloated, with pinkish eyes and a zit (or is it a boil?) on his forehead. But out of politeness — and Bruno’s dogged persistence that Guy hang out with him — Guy hangs out with him.
The more they drink, the looser their tongues become. Guy hates Miriam, who broke his heart and embarrasses him with her promiscuous behavior. Bruno hates his father, possibly because his father is a greedy non-entity who has sex with Bruno’s mother. Although Bruno doesn’t date or have sex in the novel, he’s concerned with who Guy and his mother are having sex with and wants them all for himself, which make the novel have both homoerotic and incestuous tones.
The reason I enjoy Strangers on a Train — I’ve read it three times and taught it in a freshman college lit course — is the slow creeping dread you feel. At first, you wonder if Guy can divorce the manipulative Miriam without fuss, but she’s more like Rebecca in Daphne du Maurier’s novel. Then, will Bruno kill Miriam and get away with it? What will Guy do if Miriam is killed, as it’s well known he hates her? It’s the way Highsmith trains her readers to hate someone before they are murdered, so you don’t feel too bad about it.
But much of Strangers on a Train is about guilt and ethics. Is mind-numbing guilt enough punishment for murder (or even just knowing the identity of a murderer)? Is prison time required? If society can’t murder people, then why can the law say people should be killed for a crime? Isn’t that murder? If society doesn’t care a lick that someone was murdered, is a punishment required? These are interesting questions. At first, I’m sure you thought murder is never justified, but what if the dead person was vile, a useless member of society, one who feels no love — a person no one misses at all?
On the contrary, Highsmith makes her obvious “good guys” clever. Anne, Guy’s fiance, for example. She’s an independent woman in 1950s America: interior decorator, smart, motivated to solve mysteries that interrupt her family life. She becomes the cat to Bruno’s mouse when she wants to know exactly what is going on. Anne is never a paper doll to be bopped around a play stage; she’s real.
There’s more I could go into: Bruno and Guy as opposites who are not so unalike; Guy and Bruno as possible lovers or brothers; Guy as innocent insect ensnared by Bruno the bored spider and his web of ambivalence about life having value. People write papers about the use of media (that was me). The focus on the metaphor of a train being unable to choose to leave its tracks, suggesting everything is inevitable. But I won’t. If you like a sense of foreboding in your literature, Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith is for you.