Highsmith, Patricia: Strangers on a Train (radio, text)

I listened to Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train as a one-hour BBC radio play (currently available for download at M Radio), and enjoyed it up until the end, which prompted me to get the book out of the library. The book is better, in my opinion, but hard for me to assess objectively because much of my reaction to it is in relation to the radio play, about which more in a spoiler post.

Anyway, the premise of Strangers on a Train is brilliant in its simplicity: two strangers meet on a long-distance train. [*] They have dinner and get drunk in a private compartment, and find that they have something in common: their lives would be much improved by the death of one person. One proposes that they should swap murders, but the other doesn’t take him seriously until their one person turns up murdered. Then what?

[*] The book is copyright 1950, which reminds me of John M. Ford’s comments in From the End of the Twentieth Century about how certain plots are no longer possible with the demise of trains as a major form of transportation.

The BBC version is a very tense listen, if a bit compressed, and kept me metaphorically on the edge of my seat until the end. (It’s metaphorically only because I was driving.) But the ending surprised me in one aspect and puzzled me in another. And the play also had a very peculiar view of love—at one point, one character says to another, “I don’t love you because you’re good, I love you because you’re mine.” Which, when it’s murder at issue . . . ? So I was curious if these aspects were originally part of the book.

The book, it turns out, has a different ending. (And the Hitchcock movie has a third.) I much prefer the book’s ending, but as I said, I can’t really see it in isolation, because I was reading it in dialogue with the radio play (and to a much lesser extent, the movie, which I have not seen). I can say that the first half really pulled me in, but the second half seemed to drag and the head-hopping omniscient became distracting—which is especially unfortunate given the complex and claustrophobic psychological portraits the book is built around. I certainly recommend it to those who like their thrillers dark, twisty, and internal.

2 Comments

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  1. I dislike Highsmith so thoroughly that I haven’t read Strangers on a Train. I have seen the movie, though, and aside from your standard Hitchcock fetishize-people-looking-at-each-other sexual frisson, it is the origin (or possibly only the popularizer) of that creepy film shot where you are looking at a whole audience of people, and they all turn their heads at once to see something, except for one person in the middle of the frame, who is staring directly and imperturbably at you (the camera).
    (Hitchcock stages this shot in the audience of a tennis match, but Steven Soderbergh borrowed it in the context of spectators at a building demolition in Ocean’s Eleven.)

  2. I was wondering if you might’ve read this. What do you dislike about Highsmith, if you don’t mind saying?
    Thanks for the clear explanation about the Hitchcock shot–I do badly with tension on screen, so haven’t seen much of his stuff, but I know exactly the shot you are talking about in _Ocean’s Eleven_. =>

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