means Friday’s Forgotten Books hosted by Patti Abbott here.
Last week in this spot there was a double take review on The Case of the Baker Street Irregulars by Patrick and Barry. With
Patti declaring this Patricia Highsmith day for FFB, Patrick offered the below
review. Clearly, Patrick is far less than impressed…
on a Train was Patricia Highsmith’s first
published novel, and it was a smash hit. So big, in fact, that a film
adaptation was quickly made by the master of suspense himself, Alfred
Hitchcock. And the first script was written by Raymond Chandler – although venom-filled
“creative differences” ended up getting Chandler dismissed from the project.
The final product is one of Hitchcock’s finest thrillers. But how does the
Fans of the film are warned that the
book is very, very different from the film. I suspect that many of the
differences arose thanks to the Hollywood censors, but if that was the case I
can only say “Thank God!” In the past, I’ve remarked that Hitchcock could take
the silliest stories and turn them into terrific thrillers. Sadly, Strangers on a Train is one of those
silly stories, and I have no idea why it has such a high reputation.
Story first: Guy Haines and Charles
Anthony Bruno meet on a train. Guy is a promising young architect who is on his
way to get a divorce from his wife, who is pregnant with another man’s child.
Bruno, meanwhile, is very busy doing nothing whatsoever, and he tells Guy about
his father, who controls Bruno’s purse strings and keeps him on a tight leash.
Bruno tells Guy that he has an idea for a perfect murder: they will swap
murders. There’s no reason to suppose that Guy and Bruno know each other, so
there’s no way their murders will be connected. Guy doesn’t take Bruno
seriously and is only too glad to leave the train, but Bruno is fascinated with
Guy. So Bruno decides to grant Guy a twisted favour: he hunts down Guy’s wife
Miriam and murders her at an amusement park.
So far so good. Fortunately for Guy, he has
a sturdy alibi, and the police are left puzzled. Guy suspects that Bruno may
have had something to do with Miriam’s death, but he doesn’t want to find out.
Then, Bruno gets in touch with Guy, admits he’s responsible, and tells Guy it’s
his turn to uphold his side of the bargain. Guy refuses. And so Bruno
insinuates himself into Guy's life, planning out his father’s death and
hounding the architect until finally Guy breaks down and commits the murder.
And here, ladies and gentlemen, is where
the train is derailed. From this point on, the track lead towards insanity. I’m
afraid that I simply have no sympathy for spineless, cowardly idiots, and
that’s what we have in this novel. Guy Haines is, to use a childish term, a
sissy. Here the moron gets letters from Bruno—handwritten, presumably
letters, which probably have fingerprints all over the place!!!—which
map out the proposed murder, tell Guy what to do, give tips on how to escape
the murder scene, etc. Bruno even sends him a gun!!! And what does our hero do,
ladies and gentlemen? Surely he would call the police, for presumably, coercion
into murder was illegal in the 1950s, even if there were no laws against
stalkers? Hell, no! He does the only reasonable thing: destroy the evidence!
No question of it: Guy Haines wins the
Darwin Award for 1950. The entire novel is a situation of Guy’s own making. You
can make the argument that it makes for a compelling character study, an
allegorical novel of the good and evil within each man. I make the argument
that Guy is a moron whose own stupidity is his undoing. Here he is with
physical proof that Bruno has killed his wife and is trying to get him to
commit a murder—he’s in the position of strength! But he destroys the evidence
and then whines about how his guilt haunts him. In the Hitchcock film, Guy had
a reason for being frightened of
Bruno, who threatened to frame Guy by placing false evidence at the crime
scene. Furthermore, he left no leverage that Guy might have used against him.
The movie Guy is a likeable hero, caught in a perilous situation. The book Guy?
I say he can go straight to hell.
And it’s a shame too, because the book does start out quite well. Bruno never
makes a good villain — he sounds like a snivelling twelve-year old momma’s boy
and I desperately wanted to slap him — but the situation is original and
at first quite compelling. Guy ruins everything, but he doesn’t do it
singlehanded. In fact, I say he couldn’t have done it without Bruno. Bruno
commits the greatest sin a character can commit: he’s annoying.
In the Hitchcock film, Bruno at first
seems to be a charming fellow, and his proposed murder scheme sounds like a
joke. That’s how Guy and the audience choose to take it at first, and that
makes the murder shocking. But in the novel, Bruno is an obvious psychopath—you
can spot his insanity at twenty paces. He’s never charming—he’s an annoying
little brat. You have no idea why Guy would have a conversation with him in the
first place. Not even Guy understands
it, although he’s the one who follows
Bruno to his compartment in the first place, leading to the novel’s events!
When Bruno demands that Guy commit his murder, it isn’t the demand of a
dangerous murderer but the petulant tantrum of a spoiled child. I had a hard
time finding the suspense that is supposed to permeate this novel.
And the book, incidentally, drags on and
on and on!!! The pace is snail-like and things get extremely
boring. After the two murders are committed, you simply have no idea why Guy
and Bruno would keep seeing each other. No, wait—if they didn’t see each other
you couldn’t have any obvious SYMBOLISM!!!
The entire novel feels like the author is trying to write Literature with a
capital L, but she doesn’t succeed in the slightest. There isn’t a shred of
subtlety to be found in this novel—the author has to explain every instance of
blatantly-obvious symbolism to you instead of letting you draw your own
conclusions. I give you this piece of sparkling, inspired writing:
felt a boyish, holiday delight in having Bob with him. Bob symbolized Canada
and the work there, the project in which Guy felt he had entered another vaster
chamber of himself where Bruno could not follow.”
But wait – there’s more! I sure hope you
like twisted psycho-sexual character studies! Because in this book, Bruno’s
fascination with Guy is given a very unsubtle homoerotic context. This made me
uneasy because of its possessive and obsessive nature. But it didn’t make me
sympathise with Guy— I stopped rooting for him at page 101. Instead, Strangers on a Train became a nasty
story about nasty characters being nasty to each other for no reason other than
“the plot says so”. Oh, and Bruno? Not only is he an obsessive homosexual with
clear psychological issues, he’s also in love with his mother. (How the hell
does that work???)
I didn’t like either of the two male
leads, and nobody else is worth talking about. Miriam is a manipulative little
pig, an empty-headed bimbo who appears for maybe fifteen pages and makes you
want to strangle her for 14 pages before Bruno does it for you on the 15th.
Bruno’s father is just there, although the book’s blatantly obvious symbolism
is sure to tell you that that’s the whole point. Bruno’s mother is also just
there, except because Bruno is in love with her, it makes you want to run away
screaming whenever she appears. There’s nothing to distinguish her—she’s
another moron who can’t tell that her son is an obvious psychopath. Finally,
there’s the love of Guy’s life, Anne… who again, is just there and does nothing! Only an idiot could be this oblivious: but
that doesn’t surprise me.
Patricia Highsmith was not a happy
person, and it shows in this book. Many people admire her writing, but it
personally made me shiver with revulsion. The author comes across as a very
miserable, cynical, and unpleasant person, i.e. precisely the kind of person I
would avoid in real life. The writing gives you unique insight into the mind of
such an unpleasant individual, but for me it was not even remotely interesting,
just a nasty experience I wished to put behind me. Briefly put, instead of
making me interested in her characters, Highsmith made me want to get them all
in a secluded alleyway and open fire on them with a tommy gun.
There’s only one way to sum up my
thoughts on Strangers on a Train and
Patricia Highsmith in general. In his work Bloody
Murder, Julian Symons praises Patricia Highsmith as “the most important
crime novelist at present in practice”, who takes a fascinating central idea
and “in Highsmith’s hands they are starting points for finely subtle characters
studies”. However, Symons also says that
she “is an acquired taste, which means a taste that some never acquire”. He
goes on to tell readers this story:
I was reviewing crime fiction regularly, Victor Gollancz used to write to me
before going on holiday asking me to recommend the best books of the year
published by other firms than his own. … He then bought these books and took
them away with him. At my insistence he bought one year The
Two Faces of January, which he disliked
intensely. To his letter in the following year he added a postscript: ‘Please –
no Patricia Highsmith.’
on a Train is a massive miscalculation which I
thoroughly hated, although the beginning is quite strong. It’s a pretentious,
annoying little book which is convinced that it is being Real Literature. The
characters are either bland or nasty, and Bruno’s twisted psychology and
sexuality is seriously alarming. It’s poorly written and full of obvious SYMBOLISM!!! It gives you unique
insight into the mind of an author you would probably avoid in real life. And,
most annoying of all, the entire book is unnecessary. It’s a situation
fabricated by one character being a complete moron. You can perhaps argue that
makes the whole thing so much more fascinating, but I concur with Victor
nineteen-year-old Patrick Ohl continues to plot to take over the world when he
isn’t writing reviews of books he reads on his blog, At the
Scene of the Crime. In his spare time he conducts genetic experiments
in his top-secret laboratory, hoping to create a creature as terrifying as the
Giant Rat of Sumatra in a bid to take over the world. His hobbies include
drinking tea and going outside to do a barbecue in -10°C weather.