Friday, September 27, 2013

FFB Review: "Strangers On A Train" by Patricia Highsmith

Friday 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…

Strangers 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 novel compare?

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 signed 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:

“Guy 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:

When 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.’

Strangers 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 Gollancz.

Patrick Ohl ©2013
The 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.


George said...

STRANGERS ON A TRAIN is the template for many of Highsmith's novels. There are echoes of this book in RIPLEY'S GAME.

Rick Robinson said...

It's eye-opening to me to see how many people, on this single author Friday Forgotten Book day, have disliked the book read. I'm beginning to wonder who on earth even suggested such an unlikes author to read.

Kelly Robinson said...

I'm shocked that you didn't like the book. The fact that in the film, Guy doesn't go through with it makes it a lot less scary to me. It's the fact that a good guy like Guy could do something so despicable that seems so chilling. I felt like he WAS guilted into it, fearful of being implicated in his wife's murder. He makes an extremely selfish choice. To me, that's scary -- the depths that ordinary people can sink to for self preservation, and it's what the author does so well. Hitchcock's film LOOKS good, but it wimps out, as filmmakers always do, even still, when it comes to her work. No one is willing to let the main guy be unlikable. She wasn't afraid of that, and it's one of the things I love about her. If you hated this one, she's just not for you, I think.

Anonymous said...

Hiya Patrick - I remember how much you disliked this - and just think, Chandler pretty much agreed with you (possibly the only nexus for you two here). I think the nub of the plot, the 'exchange of murders' is clearly an attractive and a stratling one and as a result got copies many, many times. Is it logical? For me that is to miss the point as it is just a way of exploring the theme of otherness in yourself and how destabilising that might be - but not naturally logically and in the movie of course they used the finale from Crispin's MOVING TOYSHOP for good measure after Hitchcock obtained the rights. Not sure I agree with Kelly about Hitcj wimping out - I think the movie works fine on its own level but as an expensive A picture they could never have made it any other way at the time, could they?

J F Norris said...

This review (more of a polemic, I'd say) reminds me of that adage about the pot calling the kettle black.

"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."

Wow. I guess that remark is supposed to be funny, but I think it reveals a lot about the writer just like Strangers on a Train supposedly reveals lot about Highsmith.

Patrick said...

Wow, I leave for the weekend and come back to several comments! That's gratifying to see. Please keep in mind that this is a piece I wrote a while ago. I didn't revise it too much, although I seriously considered it. It just captures how furious I was with a book that, I felt, had wasted my time. But as John rightly points out, it's more of a polemic. (And yes, the tommy gun remark was meant as an exaggerated joke. Reading this review over before I sent it to Kevin, I was surprised just how much I sounded like Highsmith on a particularly bad day. My "Highsmith" mode has become something of a standard joke when it comes to my negative rants; I try to infuse some humour to diminish the effect.)

Kelly, you're right when you say that Highsmith is probably just not for me. Like Julian Symons himself said, it's a taste some never acquire, and I agree with Gollancz on this one. Plain and simple: Highsmith disagreed with me, and I'm not inclined for more.

Sergio, as someone who prizes story almost above all else (though even I acknowledge the best story can be ruined by bad storytelling), I like logic. A lot. I like my plots to be logical, at the very least so they hold water while I read the book. If, three months after reading the book, I realize that the third onion could never have been in the potato sack, it won't bother me as much as if I asked myself that question on page 43 of 300.

Kevin R. Tipple said...

Patrick has strong opinions about the book and I am grateful he shared them here. Patrick offered several times to tone down the review and I told him to let it stand. Sometimes a book makes us crazy ("Shutter Island" is mine and don't get me started) and one just has to let it out.

j4ckb1ng said...

Well, the one thing I can write about this review is its author doesn't waste precious words on "symbolism." The reviewer does not like Highsmith's debut novel, "Strangers on a Train."

Fair enough. Highsmith's fiction is not for everyone nor was it meant to be. I will take the reviewer to task for declaring Highsmith was not a "happy" person. When did perceived happiness become a criterion for enjoying an author's work? As for the homoerotic aspects of Highsmith's novels, as a butch lesbian, Highsmith again, infused her work with touches of her world view. Yet, only in the posthumously published novel "Small g" does Highsmith write openly about homosexuality. As for the jibe that Highsmith's writing is tedious, for me, it is her very dealing with mundane aspects of life that are juxtaposed against acts of cruelty or brutality that make her fiction memorable.

Each to his own tastes.