Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith (1950)

Strangers on a train novel cover

From the original review of Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith in the Oakland Tribune, April, 1950:  Crime Tale Has Touch of Poe, Stevenson at Their Eeriest.

This eerie tale may be read as a story of “possession” in the old demonic sense — as a philosophical allegory of the extremes of good and evil that like in every man’s nature — as a psychological study of divided personalities and the power of suggestion — as a high powered detective yarn of murder, its concealment and eventual unmasking — or as a terror tale fully equal to the classics of Stevenson and Poe.

All this came about through a chance acquaintance, struck up on a transcontinental train, between Guy Haines, a brilliant young architect on his way west to get a divorce from his no-good wife, and Charles Bruno, a harried playboy psychopath whose various complexes and degeneracies include, among others, the last stages of alcoholism, obsessive hatred of his father, a half infantile, half erotic dependence on his mother, and incipient homosexuality.


Repulsion and attraction

These two are apparently not only antithetical but antagonistic personalities. But Guy’s instinctive repulsion is bound up with morbid attraction toward this unprepossessing character.

And Bruno’s fumbling hero-worship, reaching out toward what he most admires and is most irrevocably cut off from in Guy, is matched by a sadistic craving to prove the power of the dissolute weakling to pull his gifted, normal, and conscientious opposite into the orbit of his own malign will.

Strangers on a Train 1951 film poster

Film version of Strangers on a Train (1951)


A monstrous proposal

During that first meeting on the train, Bruno makes a monstrous proposal of dual murder. Guy wants to get rid of his wife; Bruno wants to get rid of his father. But the fantasies to that end, which Bruno has indulged with morbid intensity, have all come against the obstacle of the elder Bruno’s bodyguard detective, who would instantly suspect the son of the crime.

If however, he does Guy the slight favor of murdering Miriam, to whom he is a perfect stranger and against whom he has no motive. Guy can then reciprocate with the equally motiveless and therefore “perfect” murderer of the old man.

Naturally, Guy wants no part of this, nor any part of Bruno, either. But to his horror, Miriam is actually murdered. Guy’s horrified suspicions are at first too unsupported to carry to the police. By the time they are converted into certainties, he is enmeshed in a web from which he cannot struggle free.

Strangers on a Train (1950) novel cover


The duality within

And yet, for all his loathing, Guy recognizes in Bruno the opposite half of himself. “The doubleness of everything — you know, the positive and the negative, side by side. Two people in each person. There’s always a person exactly the opposite of you, somewhere in the world, and he waits in ambush.”

How this struggle of wills is fought to the finish between two persons, or between the two halves of one person in the darkness where the subconscious lurks, waiting to erupt into action, must be left to the reader to find out, since this is, after all, a whale of a suspense story. It has in it the elements of the “doppelganger” legend, and elements that make Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde seem absurdly oversimplified. 

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