A Tale of Two Men: Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith
In Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith, there are two men, one is rotten to the core and devotes a considerable amount of time studying ways to commit the perfect murder. The other is good, an up-and-coming architect, who will make deadly choices, if placed in certain situations.
The Story: Strangers on a Train
Guy Haines is happy; he has done the specs for a building that will launch his career. He is finally in a relationship with Anne, a woman he loves and respects, and is waiting for a divorce from his wife, Miriam who cheated on him. She has asked to meet with him, and he is hoping that he will finally get his divorce so he can move on with his life. Miriam is now pregnant with her lover’s child.
Charles Anthony Bruno is a lazy, rich “kid” who thinks the world owes him. He wants to live a charmed life, without working for his keep, and spends his day drinking, and thinking about ways that he can kill his father and get away with it.
Guy and Bruno are traveling on the same train. The sadistic psychopath befriends Guy and asks him many questions. Though Guy would rather be alone, he still talks to Bruno. At one point he politely tells Bruno that he needs to be alone, but being a master manipulator Bruno gets his own way and spends more time with Guy.
During their conversation Bruno suggests that people like Guy’s wife Miriam, and his father deserve to be dead. And he suggests that he could kill Miriam, and Guy could kill his father and create the perfect murders, after all who would suspect the real killers, what would be their motivation? Guy is shocked and wants nothing to do with this man who has a twisted mind.
When Guy arrives in Metcalf where his mother and wife live, he wants to finally find out why Miriam summoned him. It turns out that there is another delay for the divorce. Miriam’s lover cannot marry her yet, because he is married, so she needs a few more months and wants to delay the divorce yet another time. Miriam learned about his new project and suggests that she goes with him to Florida where he would be working. Guy is having none of it, and decides he is going to sacrifice this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. He wants Miriam out of his life.
Strangers on a Train is beautifully written, and you get caught up in the drama unfolding on the pages. Bruno is obsessed with Guy, and he has the “Art of Manipulation” down to an exact science. He takes it upon himself to kill Miriam. The authorities question Guy, but he is never arrested. Guy knows deep in his heart that Bruno murdered his wife, but he keeps quiet and doesn’t voice his concerns to anyone, falling deeper and deeper into Bruno’s trap.
Bruno writes Guy constantly threatening him, and essentially inserts himself into Guy’s and Anne’s life. When Guy ignores him, he steps up the pressure a few notches and writes letters to Guy’s clients and potential clients. Guy is scared, but instead of talking to someone and coming clean, trusting that he would be okay, he succumbs to Bruno’s pressure and commits the murder. He murders Bruno’s father using the plan that his twisted cohort had outlined.
Big Lessons in Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith
Writer Oscar Wilde wrote in his essay The Decay of Lying states that “Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life”. You may be wondering what lessons you can learn from Strangers on a Train, a work of art, but the book is more than a psychological thriller. It teaches the following lessons:
- What can happen when fear cripples you
- The dangers of trying to go it alone
- What can happen when you yield to the wrong kind of peer pressure
How many times have you kept quiet because it was the easiest option? How many times have you turned the other way because you didn’t want to get involved? No one is perfect; we are all flawed. And Strangers on a Train highlights this fact. Good people can do very bad things when pushed to the limit. Who are the Charles Anthony Brunos in your life?
As an active reader, I got pulled into the drama. I was so stressed when Guy didn’t trust his partner Anne enough to talk to her. Or didn’t speak to the police. I was so frustrated when Bruno kept on pulling him into a web of lies. We as readers, though we may feel that we are in the story, we are outside the story as well, so we can judge and be self-righteous. But when strange situations confront us, how will we react? Our reactions will be better aligned with who we fundamentally are if we took the time to develop our value system. Had Guy done that, he would have known at least what his first step should be.
We don’t have to have the complete answer, but we should know what the first step is. I recommend Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith.
UPDATE from Avil: In August 2016, I read The 3 Gaps (Amazon Affiliate link) by Hyrum Smith. In the book, you get the instruction you need to create your personal constitution – you personal values that will govern your life.
Selected Patricia Highsmith Books