The psychologists would call it folie a deux…
‘Bruno slammed his palms together. “Hey! Cheeses, what an idea! I kill your wife and you kill my father! We meet on a train, see, and nobody knows we know each other! Perfect alibis! Catch?”’
From this moment, almost against his conscious will, Guy Haines is trapped in a nightmare of shared guilt and an insidious merging of personalities.
Where does one begin with a novel that most people, I think, know the plot of even if they haven’t read it or seen the film? For those who don’t know, Highsmith introduces us to Guy Haines as he travels to Texas by train. There, he hopes to secure a divorce from his wife, Miriam, which will enable him to remarry. On that train he meets Charles Anthony Bruno, a young man from a well to do background. After a few drinks, Charles proposes that they help each other out. Charles will kill Guy’s wife leaving him free to marry, and in exchange, Guy will murder Charles’s overbearing father, allowing Charles to access his inheritance. Guy doesn’t agree – although he doesn’t explicitly reject the offer, either – and thinks little more of it until Charles fulfils his side of the deal.
Strangers on a Train establishes the psychology of the two main protagonists extremely well. For Guy, this is his gradual deterioration as he becomes increasingly anxious and stressed as Charles pressurises him into holding up his side of the bargain. Charles is dogged in his pursuit of Guy – he begins hanging around his house, calling him – and Guy’s mother! – at all hours, and eventually begins to contact potential clients of Guy’s, hinting at some shady behaviour in Guy’s past. Charles insinuates himself into every aspect of Guy’s life, becoming overbearing and threatening and the reader wonders whether Guy will eventually give in, or whether he will somehow find another way out of his situation.
Charles is equally well drawn. A young man, he’s used to getting what he wants, and he immediately comes across as being pushy when Guy first meets him on the train. The one exception is his father who withholds Charles’s regular allowance. While he’s hardly destitute, he sees the allowance as his right and something that would enable him to live the life he thinks he deserves. His murder of Miriam seems little more than a lark with no consideration as to the consequences of his actions, and he has no qualms about pressurising Guy into upholding his side of a bargain that he never actually agreed to. Charles remains a dubious character in many respects, particularly as we learn more about his relationship with his mother which seems questionable at times. He’s difficult to like, coming across as needful and desperate and unused to having someone refuse to go along with his schemes.
One thing that the novel does lack for me is a sympathetic character. Charles is spoiled and comes as a bully in his treatment of Guy. While that should make me sympathise with Guy, I didn’t. He lacks any backbone in his encounters with Charles, and I think that the situation he finds himself in is partly of his own making. Even Miriam and Charles’s father fail to gain my support. Charles’s father isn’t introduced sufficiently for the reader to care about his fate, and we only see him through Charles eyes, giving a biased but unfavourable view of his character. Miriam is presented as something of a harlot – she cheated on Guy during their marriage, and while I don’t agree with the message that she’s getting what she deserves, I also don’t know her well enough to sympathise with her.
Like many novels from this time, the pace is much slower than many present day thrillers, but I enjoyed the gradual progression of the novel as Guy is forced to decide what to do as Charles’s campaign against him escalates. There’s a period of will he / won’t he, and yet however bad things get, he doesn’t seem to want to be rid of Guy completely. It seems that Charles has him intrigued, and I felt that there were undertones of attraction in their dealings. Strangers on a Train is classic, and rightly so. It may not have the pace of present day thrillers, but it’s an original concept and brilliantly explores the psychology of the two main protagonists as the stress of their respective situations begins to take its toll.