Patricia Highsmith. Strangers On A Train. New York: W. W. Norton, 2001. 256pp.
Patricia Highsmith has written a taut psychological thriller examining a person's capacity to murder; and the confluence of events that drive people to commit it. It is also a novel about fate: how a single event can irrevocably change the course of a person's life.
Guy Haines, a floundering architect, meets with Charles Bruno, a professional loafer, on a train. They talk. They drink. They commiserate. Guy is on his way to Texas to demand a divorce from his adulterous wife Miriam. Charles is taking a holiday from his father, whom he despises for being both a skinflint and a lousy husband. Charles, a charming psychopath concocts, a scheme to get rid of their "problems": Charles would kill Guy's wife, while Guy would kill Charles' father. The perfect murders. No one would know. Nothing to connect them. Guy dismisses the idea as crazy and decides right then and there to keep his distance from Charles and his murderous machinations.
But Charles won't leave Guy alone. He likes Guy. He wants Guy. And the only thing standing between him and Guy, Charles strongly believes, is Miriam. So he murders her in cold-blood. Charles then hounds Guy to do his part: cajoling him, blackmailing him, threatening to ruin his career, which was on the rise. Guy should have dismissed Charles' threats for what they were, threats, but Guy is racked by guilt: guilt for Miriam's death; and guilt for not fulfilling his part of the bargain.
Twisted? Yes. But this is what Highsmith excels at: her portraiture of the human psyche. Highsmith spends inordinate amount of time examining what her characters are thinking. For much of the novel, the reader will literally reside in Guy's head, as he battles not only guilt, but the dual nature of man: that inside all of us are two contradictory forces-- one good, the other bad. Charles had a telling but chilling quote that is the overarching theme of the book:
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.Charles is right, of course, but we must not forget that Charles is a psychopath: he feels no remorse, no guilt, nothing. Guy, on the other hand, guilt weighs heavily on his shoulders; often wishing to unburden himself by admitting everything, damn the consequences.
Yet Highsmith reminds us that this is not just some literary meditation on the pathos of guilt-ridden men, but a thriller of high-quality; and like any good thriller writer, Highsmith keeps us guessing till the end.