Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith

I usually remember a book that I liked, or just those that were okay enough, those that guarantee discussions with self in here or elsewhere, either because the book stayed true to its blurbs, which is often as plainly put as ‘unforgettable’ or ‘unputdownable’, or the ending is so dry and unresolved which I find nervy of the author, and I occasionally I find it amusing that some novelists would write 500-1000 pages of stuff that seem to stretch for eternity only to end in such low, unremarkable note. Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train is sort of like that for me. I have no recollection of its ending but I won’t soon forget its idea that you can meet a stranger on a train, have a polite conversation, plot someone’s murder and get away with it, or play the conscientious sucker who feels sorry for the murder you were sure you wanted anyway. Put your own twist of that particular idea and try applying that in more tangible, doable or realistic terms and you’ve got a psychological thriller that works.

Instead of being all bloggy-vague about my feelings about my first and definitely not last Patricia Highsmith experience, I decided to check how this book ended and found that it was even drier than I initially thought it had been. In the book, there’s a great build-up about the disposability of morals through some of the seemingly morally bankrupt characters that Patricia Highsmith, believed to be an actual horrible person herself, creates with ease and with such empathy, perfectly exemplified through the Charles Bruno character, that you might as well be convinced that what she’s getting at is that there really are some people who deserve to get away with murder and that conscientious cowards, the Guy Haines character, are punished, and then she drops a bomb of an ending wherein the guilt-wracked of the two, Guy, surrenders to authorities who are nowhere near as shrewd as the brilliant Bruno. The end. No explanations, just a period and a hint of a struggle, which is really how proper ‘dry’ stories should end.

Strangers on a Train is, in a way, scary. But it’s not scary the way most horror stories are. What makes it terrifying somehow is that it makes you realize that anyone is capable of committing truly horrible deeds, given the right circumstances. That it doesn’t even take that much motivation to commit the foulest of crimes, and that all it takes is the right amount of provocation, the location of the right button, and presto, you can murder. Which of course it’s not just murder, but out of all the crimes known to man, the willingness to kill might be the ultimate manifestation of a man’s capacity to be bad.

In fiction it’s acceptable to root for the villains because they are often more interesting. In here, the bad guy is annoying and not really all that compelling as an evildoer. He’s just a regular affluent man who got mad at daddy for reasons that certainly do not warrant killing. He’s simply a drama queen whose psychological make-up happens to be more adjusted towards the attainment of revenge via the committing of heinous crimes and who happens to be in possession of an almost admirable ability to justify such acts in a way that most humans with souls/conscience/heart mostly can’t. In spite of these, you’re still on Team Bruno. My guess is that in reading Patricia Highsmith,  you shouldn’t worry about your conscience too much because she seems to put a lot more thought to creating the complex mind of her primary villains, far more than she ever would for the victims.

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