Every once in a while I get a yen to read the source novel for one of my favorite classic movies. My most recent read (actually listen) is Strangers On A Train, by Patricia Highsmith. I have seen the classic Alfred Hitchcock film, featuring Robert Walker and Farley Granger, many times. There are some indelible, memorable scenes in that movie – the two men crossing legs and crossing lives on the train, the gold lighter which incriminates and absolves, the final deadly and hair-raising sequence on the merry-go-round at the amusement park. Apart from their initial meeting on the train, Hitchcock fans should know that none of those set pieces are in the book.
That doesn’t mean that the book isn’t interesting, however. It was Highsmith’s first novel, published five years before her successful The Talented Mr. Ripley. It could be viewed as a precursor of some of the themes that appear in that novel, like the doubling effect of two male protagonists. Charles Bruno is a charming sociopath. He wants to “trade murders” with a random man he meets on a train, Guy Haines, an up-and-coming architect (Hitch made him a tennis pro). Guy doesn’t take Bruno seriously, but he doesn’t condemn him that forcefully, either. Guy’s got his own problems. His estranged wife Miriam is now pregnant by her new boyfriend and he’s hoping she will agree to a divorce so that he can marry his (very rich) sweetheart Anne. But Miriam is not known for being agreeable.
Strangers On A Train is a psychological thriller. Highsmith is most interested in Guy’s mental journey and collapse as Bruno continually pressures him to hold up his end of the bargain. Written in 1950, the undercurrents of homosexuality between the two men must have seemed shocking. Highsmith isn’t exactly sympathetic to the almost perpetually drunken Bruno, but she lets his character grow through his actions and how people react to him, which makes him more interesting than broody Guy. In fact, “hero” Guy becomes more and more unlikable as the story progresses. Highsmith does not do a very good job with her lone female character, Anne, who seems to only exist to be devoted to Guy, but we are never given a reason why she likes the increasingly unpleasant fellow. The story is told at times from both Guy’s and Bruno’s perspectives. The book would have definitely benefited if we had more of Anne’s perspective, too.
Ultimately Strangers On A Train is an interesting read, but I prefer how Alfred Hitchcock streamlined some of the action and themes and certainly brought his visual flair to Highsmith’s clever plot idea. I “read” the audible version of this book, read by Bronson Pinchot.