Thoughts on ‘Strangers On a Train’ by Patricia Highsmith

This is not a book review.

It’s about what I learnt from reading this classic novel and has some elements of critique in it.

A month ago I posted a blog about how anything you read influences your work in progress. My current project is written in third-person. All but one of my published works is written in first person. So as I’m learning the craft of third person narratives, reading Highsmith’s novel has helped me, as you can see from the quote below from my previous blog:

I’ve sometimes felt uncertain in passages which go into great lengths telling you how a character feels at that moment. It goes against my golden rule of ‘show, don’t tell’. But reading a master storyteller has made me realise it’s not such a bad thing.

I’ve now finished Strangers On a Train, and I’ve also learnt what doesn’t work.

This novel is over seventy years old. To me, some of Highsmith’s style has dated. The ‘tell, rather than show’ method I mentioned in the quote above is used more and more in the second half of the story, yet the drama doesn’t build.

I’ve read the first three of her Tom Ripley series, and loved the first two. So when I saw this novel in a second hand book store, I picked it up as an antidote to two other denser works I’m trying to get through.

The first half kept me intrigued.

Guy Haines and Charles Bruno meet on a train. Bruno (as he is often referred to in this book) is an unpleasant alcoholic who has made nothing of himself even though he was born into privilege. He also hates his father. Guy is a self-made architect and has a wife who is having a child to another man. Divorce is on the cards.

But Bruno offers to kill Guy’s wife if Guy kills Bruno’s father. No one would suspect either of them because they are strangers. While Guy hates his wife and already has a new girlfriend named Anne, he is not keen on Bruno’s plan.

That doesn’t stop Bruno killing Guy’s wife anyway.

Then Bruno begins to stalk Guy, obsessively. He leaves detailed plans on how Guy can return the favour, and begins to threaten him if he doesn’t go through with the murder of his father.

As already mentioned, most scenes in this novel have very long passages of telling, rather than showing. Dialogue becomes scarce or is interrupted with huge paragraphs detailing a character’s inner feelings. These descriptions get longer in the second half. Bruno keeps appearing in Guy’s life against his wishes. And again as previously mentioned, he just keeps appearing yet his obsession with Guy doesn’t build.

Later Highsmith tells us both Guy and Anne warm to Bruno on occasion, until his own actions remind the couple he is a loser. But I didn’t sense they warmed to him at all reading the novel.

There are several scenes where dialogue flow.

These scenes worked for me. One is where a detective questions both Guy and Bruno. The other is a tragic boat scene. Now please let me reiterate, most of the first half of the book reads well, and these are my issues with the second half. So the two scenes referenced in this paragraph are a welcome relief as the dialogue is left mostly uninterrupted – reading more like a modern novel.

Then there is Guy and Anne’s wedding scene, and another chapter where they have a house-warming party. Bruno crashes both. Today, these scenes would be considered underwritten. They could have told us so much more about Bruno’s lonely obsession with Guy in a way all the overwritten explanation in other scenes don’t.

Highsmith’s occasional head-hopping also made me smile.

When my only third-person omnipresent novel got to proof reading stage, the manuscript returned with many freaked out comments littered through it. I read blogs on head hopping and there seems to be a general consensus that it is an issue to Americans rather than readers from other nations. My editor is British, so she had no problem with it before it was proofed.

Before that novel’s release, I lost faith in it, so I smirked at the moments where in Highsmith’s seventy-two year old story, it was used freely.

Strangers On a Train is the perfect tale for a new movie version.

Charles Bruno could start off as an unlikable character and the script writers could work in appealing traits which help us understand why Guy and Anne warm to him. Or they could build on his sociopath traits giving Guy and Anne no choice but to keep him in their lives.

Either way, the motivations need to be clearer from all characters in the second half of this book.

I might seek out Hitchcock’s version and rediscover how he dealt with these issues.

Three stars.

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