Strangers on a Train and The Selected Stories of Patricia Highsmith

In many ways, Strangers on a Train is a much more satisfying work than Crime and Punishment. In broad strokes, both detail the guilt-wracked protagonists after each committed murder.  Guy Haines was browbeaten into committing murder, which seemed a questionable plot point. But what struck me as eminently believable was the way in which Guy’s mind grew distraught, even as his life continued apace.

I think it seems in vogue to write about murder as if any one of us can commit it. From my reading, Highsmith took the opposite thesis. People who kill are a little bit off. Charles Bruno is the son of a rich  man; he’s indolent and insolent. He is a little bit too close to his mother, and he probably harbors homosexual tendencies (it’s not weird now, but in the 50’s, it was). He certainly has a strong sense of the fantastical. He feels that Guy is the only person who can understand him and that they can escape together and recount their crime.
Guy and Bruno meet on a train. They talk, and Bruno senses some hint of tension in Guy. Guy has a wife whom he wishes to divorce – the very reason for the train trip – and Bruno has a father who apparently is an ogre. Bruno suggests what is the perfect crime, and has become a detective genre cliche. Bruno would kill Miriam, Guy’s soon to be ex-wife and Guy would kill Bruno’s father. The perfect crime, as the killers would have no obvious links to the victims, amounting to a random murder. Guy is disturbed and appalled by Bruno; I think he senses something is off-kilter about Bruno. Needless to say, Bruno is crazy, and decides to force matters and kills Miriam. Part of this might be because Bruno hates women. He says he hates his father because the father is an adulterer. But it turns out that Bruno’s mom gives as good as she gets, having her own stable of men to toy with. As another hint as to the fact that Bruno lives in his own head, he tells Guy that his mother is an example of the purity of women. Other evidence to show that Bruno is mentally unstable is that Bruno cannot leave Guy alone. He needs to drop hints to the detective who is following him. He involves himself in Guy’s life. In other words, establishing the connections that make it much easier to to link the two men.

What was interesting to me is how Highsmith handled Guy’s eventual descent into his own madness and commits murder. It is as if the motive is for Guy to shut Bruno up. Not necessarily to avoid being framed for a murder he didn’t commit, or that he wished to indulge in an animal behavior, but to kill so that Bruno would stop bothering him. Guy is portrayed as a depressed individual. He can’t take joy in his success. He is divorcing Miriam because she cheated on him, often. There is the element that Guy feels ill-used and played for a fool. He can’t be happy with his new girlfriend. He cannot confide in her, certainly not the murder but also very few other things.  It doesn’t take too much to disrupt Guy’s life, because he is already on the edge. He couldn’t be happy with his life before the murder, and he lets guilt take over after the murder. That is the one thing Guy can do extremely well – play martyr.

But I thought the best part of the novel was in how it slowly developed that others began to notice Guy’s odd behavior. It was a neat trick to portray it subtly, where others begin to see that something is not quite right with Guy. This is true especially in how Guy’s fiance notices that Guy goes from depression to something wilder.

In similar fashion, Highsmith’s short stories, in the collection The Selected Stories of Patricia Highsmith, show that she has little sympathy for humankind. Although there is a collection of character sketches that paint women in a terrible light (Little Tales of Misogyny),  in truth, no one came off looking too sympathetic. That’s not true; the collection opens up with a number of stories about animals that commit murder. Highsmith portrays these murderers as eminently justified. Everyone else is selfish, ugly, and dark. We see murder committed in cold blood, as an afterthought, for the joy of it, and from negligence and indifference. It’s impressive that, to my eyes, the stories are distinctive enough such that they don’t seem repetitive.

My favorite story is “The Romantic”. It is about a secretary who gets stood up on a date. Eventually, she starts going on made-up dates, where she sits and enjoys her time at a bar. She imagines the men she is waiting for. Knowing that these men will never show up, she feels liberated and happy.  She comes to realize that she very much prefers these pretend dates. So much so that when she is asked to go out on a date, she stands her date up. Her imagination gives her more satisfaction then men (and perhaps even other companions.) While it isn’t quite the slamming of the door in Ibsen’s “The Doll House”, I think it is a strong statement to make: Fuck them; I don’t need them.


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