CBR Bingo: Shadow
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. The splitting of the atom was the only true destruction, the breaking of the universal law of oneness. Nothing could be without its opposite that was bound up with it.
Strangers on a Train is not the first time I’ve read Patricia Highsmith. I’ve read her short stories (still scarred by “The Terrapin,” thanks), one of her Ripley books, and my favorite, the lesbian love/suspense story The Price of Salt. She doesn’t just do crime, she does creepy. Or maybe the more precise word is unsettling. Her crime/suspense writing is dark. It’s very character-driven, and boy does she know how to create a disturbing character. It’s so much in the details. A smile at an odd time. Conversations with subtle menace.
I had vaguely heard about the movie Strangers on a Train and thought it was about two strangers who meet on a train and agree to kill someone for the other person. The idea being that there would be no connection between the killer and the victim. It would be a swap. They also could rely on the fact the other person wouldn’t reveal their crime, lest they be caught for their own.
But it turns out to be a one-sided pact, where one of the strangers fixates on the other. In the midst of a casual conversation on the train, character Bruno suggests to Guy, the protagonist, that he has the idea for the perfect murder. His intensity makes it seem this is more than idle chatter, but when they part Guy doesn’t give the conversation another thought, though they both described people who were causing them grief (for Guy, his ex-wife, and for Bruno, his father). Bruno, on the other hand, is completely enamored with the idea of killing Guy’s ex-wife. So without anything close to an agreement in place, he tracks down Guy’s wife and strangles her to death while she’s out with friends.
Bruno is excited by what he’s done and what he imagines Guy’s response will be. He’s gone way off the rails, needless to say, and when he tells Guy that he’s held up his part of the non-existent bargain, Guy recoils. But in fact his ex-wife’s murder did help Guy, as it prevented his ex from messing up a crucial job opportunity for him. But he did not ask Bruno to do any such thing. Bruno for his part acts like he’s fervently in love with Guy after just one encounter. He thinks about Guy all the time, and when Guy rejects him, he turns menacing.
I chose this book as the “Shadow” bingo square because there are frequent unsettling scenes where Bruno is lurking in the shadows—in the woods, across the street from Guy’s house, even showing up in Guy’s very bedroom:
“Guy awakened to Bruno’s presence in the dark, though he heard nothing […]
“Hi,” Bruno said softly. “I got in on a pass key. You’re ready now, aren’t you?”
Guy raised himself to one elbow. Of course Bruno was there. The orangey end of his cigarette was there. “Yes,” Guy said, and felt the yes absorbed by the darkness, not like the other nights where the yes had been silent, not even going out from him.”
But shadow also relates to what Bruno is in Guy’s life. He is the darkness of Guy’s own rage, Guy’s shadow side which is drawn into the plot because it wants to be. Bruno is often physically in shadow, but he is also standing behind Guy casting one of his own. As Guy thinks at one point, “Hadn’t he known Bruno was like himself?” Later, Bruno tells Guy’s wife Anne about Guy’s philosophy: “People, feelings, everything! Double! Two people in each person. There’s also a person exactly the opposite of you, like the unseen part of you, somewhere in he world, and he waits in ambush.”
The characters are so well drawn, and the psychopathic Bruno in particular made me delightfully uneasy. The initially one-sided relationship he has with Guy is so intense and so odd it creates near constant tension. Guy is a stuffed shirt and not particularly likeable; even though I knew Bruno was an unstable murderer I felt for him more than Guy. It sounds weird, but there’s something innocent about Bruno, just as much as there is something horrifying. He desperately wants to impress Guy, and in his derangement feels childishly hopeful that Guy will appreciate what he’s done.
Highsmith has a genius for psychological thrillers. The sense of violence transcends the actual murderous act. It is a thread through everything, including violence of emotion. The story is a page-turner, but also deeply satisfying as a character study. Plus it’s a good reminder not to talk to strangers on public transportation. You never know who they will do on your behalf.