I’m so glad my book club picked Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith because I’m not sure I would have read it otherwise. I’ve wanted to read some of her other books, like The Price of Salt, for a while, but this one was never at the top of my list.
Right after reading the book I watched Alfred Hitchcock’s film version. If you’ve seen it, don’t skip the book. Patricia Highsmith was an amazing writer, and even though Strangers on a Train was her debut, it’s exceptional. Plus, they really are quite different.
Both tell the twisted story of a double murder plot. It starts when Guy Haines, an architect in the book and tennis player in the film (for some reason I can’t seem to figure out), meets Charles Anthony Bruno on a train. They get to know each other and it doesn’t take long for Bruno to come up with a criss-cross plan involving Bruno’s father and Guy’s ex.
On an aside, it didn’t take me long to realize that The Simpsons Treehouse of Horror XX was inspired by Strangers on a Train. Criss-cross!
Guy doesn’t take the whole thing seriously, but Bruno is not messing around. He kills Guy’s ex and then pressures Guy into murdering his father. In the movie, Guy never follows through with it. But in the book, Bruno tortures him until he eventually breaks, which is what makes the book so much darker than the film. The idea that anyone can be talked into murder like is a terrifying concept.
And speaking of terrifying, in the book, Bruno is a much more disturbed character than in the movie. When you’re watching him in the film, it’s easy to dismiss him as a psychopath. But in the book, for good or for bad, you can really get into his head:
“There were moments when he felt his whole being in some as yet inscrutable stage of metamorphosis. There was the deed he had done, which in his hours alone in the house, in his room, he felt sat upon his head like a crown, but a crown that no one else could see.
I can appreciate the changes Hitchcock made to the story in order to make the movie as good as it was. I still say tennis was an odd choice, but that carousel at the end was pretty memorable. Ultimately, he decided to give the movie a hero, which the book doesn’t. Instead, Highsmith focused on the good and evil that resides in all of us, the duplicity, which is more interesting but wouldn’t necessarily make for a good movie.
The stories about the script for Strangers on a Train are legendary. Hitchcock apparently approached a bunch of well-known authors, including John Steinbeck and Dashiell Hammett, to write the script, but they all turned him down. Raymond Chandler ended up writing two drafts of the script but Hitchcock didn’t end up using what he wrote, despite the fact that his name is still credited on the film. If you haven’t already, take a minute to read Chandler’s sharply-worded letter to Hitchcock on Open Culture. It’s pretty great.
Strangers on a Train is such an amazing story that it works as both a movie and a book. In the end, I liked the book more because it’s dark and moody, and because I love Patricia Highsmith’s style so damn much.