Books Read in 2021 – 31. Strangers on a Train – Patricia Highsmith

Genre: Crime

Narrative Style: third person, chronological

Published: 1950

Rating: 3.5/5

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: Guy Haines and Charles Bruno meet on the train. Bruno is immediately captivated by Haines and proposes that they sort out their respective problems by each murdering the person who is holding them back – Haines’ wife, Miriam, and Bruno’s father. There would be no link between them and neither would get into trouble. Haines is not keen and assumes that Bruno is talking hypothetically but when Miriam is murdered, he realises he may have to keep up his side of the bargain.

Time on Shelf: I’ve been meaning to read this for a long time but only recently purchased a copy.

This is starting to be a theme for this year’s reading but I didn’t enjoy this as much as I expected. Certainly, it was not as straightforwardly thrilling as The Talented Mr RIpley and I felt it lacked the tension of that novel. I did go back and forth between ratings as parts of it were very good but other parts left me feeling bored.

The novel starts strongly. The opening line – ‘The train tore along with an angry, irregular rhythm.’ – immediately gives the reader an impression of an unpleasant atmosphere. This is not the start of a happy story. Guy Haines is the impatient passenger, desperate to get where he is going so he can get a divorce from his wife. He is caught in his unhappy and hateful thoughts by Charles Bruno, rich and ridiculous, who joins his carriage. Bruno is full of wild ideas. The main one that he shares with Haines is the idea of two strangers, meeting briefly, carrying out a murder for each other, and then never meeting ever again. So far so good. I was hooked.

However, it then seemed to take ages for the first murder to happen. I didn’t feel the build up of tension. It felt stodgy and I wanted to get past it. This is partly due to the fact that I had an idea of what was going to happen. This isn’t a book one comes to blind. I knew there was to be action and I was impatient to get to it. This may be my problem not Highsmith’s.

There are moments of high tension after that but I didn’t feel that overall it lived up to the promise of the meeting on the train. Haines’ panic after he has killed Bruno’s father is well described and the way he falls apart even though he now has everything he wants is convincing but I expected that this would be impossible to put down and it just wasn’t.

One of the more interesting elements of the book is the way that it is a metaphor for the hidden nature of homosexuality at the time of writing. Two strangers meet on the train, they hook up and go on with their lives except Bruno keeps appearing in Haines’ life spoiling his marriage to his new wife, making Haines ashamed of the things he has done. Bruno equally knows the dangers of seeing Haines as they need to remain undiscovered but he cannot keep away. When he removes Miriam from the picture, he is making a space for himself in Haines’ life that he cannot possibly fill. Haines immediately marries again, pushing Bruno back out of his life. This was more interesting then the actual plot.

The ending was disappointing. Although I sensed that getting caught was actually a relief to Haines, it still felt anticlimactic. And I felt that Bruno deserved more punishment than falling from Haines’ boat. None of it felt very satisfying. Perhaps I’ll stick to reading the Ripley books.

3 thoughts on “Books Read in 2021 – 31. Strangers on a Train – Patricia Highsmith

  1. I haven’t seen the film although I’m going to watch it soon. I recorded it recently but I wanted to read the book first. It is supposed to be very good. I can see how it might make a better film than book.

  2. what a shame, the film’s great – have you seen it? do you think it’s better than the book or didn’t you like it either? I keep meaning to read Highsmith, but maybe not this one, even though your copy is gorgeous!

    1. I have watched the film now and it was much better than the book – mostly because they changed the storyline but also because Hitchcock is such a master of suspense. I wouldn’t recommend reading the book.

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