Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith (1950)

Strangers on a Train (1950) novel cover

Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith (1950) was her first novel, and has remained, along with the Ripley series, among her best-known works. It has been adapted for film and television several times, the most iconic being the 1951 adaptation directed by Alfred Hitchcock.

This psychological thriller involves two men who meet, not surprisingly, on a train. One of them proposes that they “swap murders.”

This twisty novel marked the start of Patricia Highsmith’s prolific career as a crime novelist, the genre that made her reputation (with one exception being The Price of Salt, the lesbian love story published under the pseudonym Claire Morgan in 1952).

For the centenary of Highsmith’s 1921 birth, W.W. Norton issued a new edition, encapsulating the story: 

“Guy Haines and Charles Anthony Bruno are passengers on the same train. Haines is a successful architect in the midst of a divorce, Bruno a mysterious smooth-talker with a sadistic proposal: he’ll murder Haines’s wife if Haines will murder Bruno’s father.

As Bruno carries out his twisted plan, Guy finds himself trapped in Highsmith’s perilous world, where, under the right circumstances, ordinary people are capable of extraordinary crimes.

The inspiration for Alfred Hitchcock’s classic 1951 film, Strangers on a Train launched Highsmith’s prolific career, proving her a master at depicting the unsettling forces that tremble beneath the surface of everyday life.”

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Patricia Highsmith

Learn more about Patricia Highsmith
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An original 1950 review of Strangers on a Train

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.

It’s also 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, and a half infantile, half erotic dependence on his mother.

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.

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Strangers on a Train 1951 film poster

Film version of Strangers on a Train (1951)
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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.

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Strangers on a train novel cover
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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 “doppelgänger” legend, and elements that make Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde seem absurdly oversimplified. 


Quotes from Strangers on a Train

“The taste of Scotch, though Guy didn’t much care for it, was pleasant because it reminded him of Anne. She drank Scotch, when she drank. It was like her, golden, full of light, made with careful art.”

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“That’s exactly where you’re wrong! Any kind of person can murder. Purely circumstances and not a thing to do with temperament! People get so far — and it takes just the least little thing to push them over the brink. Anybody. Even your grandmother. I know.”

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“But love and hate, he thought now, good and evil, lived side by side in the human heart, and not merely in differing proportions in one man and the next, but all good and all evil. One had merely to look for a little of either to find it all, one had merely to scratch the surface.”

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“The way to see the world was to see it drunk. Everything was created to be seen drunk.”

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“If he believed in the full complement of evil in himself, he had to believe also in a natural compulsion to express it. He found himself wondering, therefore, from time to time, if he might have enjoyed his crime in some way, derived some primal satisfaction from it — how else could one really explain in mankind the continued toleration of wars, the perennial enthusiasm for wars when they came, if not for some primal pleasure in killing?”

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“Society’s law was lax compared to the law of conscience”

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“The desperate boredom of the wealthy, that he often spoke of to Anne. It tended to destroy rather than create. And it could lead to crime as easily as privation.”

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