Today’s best thriller writers on one hundred classics of the genre…
My goal is to eventually make my way through all of these must-read titles. These books have been around for so long and read by so many that another generic review from your average reader seems unnecessary. Instead, I thought it would be fun to take a look at what some of the experts have to say about the stories that paved the way for their own success… and how their perspective compares to my own reading experience. Today, I’m looking at Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train.
Here we encounter Guy Haines and Charles Anthony Bruno, passengers on the same train. But while Guy is a successful architect in the midst of a divorce, Bruno turns out to be a sadistic psychopath who manipulates Guy into swapping murders with him. “Some people are better off dead,” Bruno remarks, “like your wife and my father, for instance.” As Bruno carries out his twisted plan, Guy is trapped in Highsmith’s perilous world, where, under the right circumstances, anybody is capable of murder.
David Baldacci writes, “the dread builds slowly but inexorably as the characters develop like film before our hungry eyes,” and this is precisely what I felt reading Strangers on a Train. Older books tend to have a slower pace that I find harder to get caught up in, but it was impossible not to get caught up in this book.
The whole story is based more on psychological than physical terror, and this reality, “that any one of us could be Guy Haines… that any one of us could be Charles Bruno,” is really what drives it. I’m not familiar with Highsmith’s other works, but she seems to be known for taking the ordinary and confronting it with the extraordinary. I guess a lot of great novels use that same idea, but that doesn’t make it any less effective. And even though I knew the basic premise — the phrase “strangers on a train” has become synonymous with “swapping murders” through popular culture — that didn’t keep me from wondering just what would happen next. What would Bruno do? How would Guy react? Would Anne find out? These are the questions that kept me turning the pages with urgency, despite the relatively slow narrative.
What would you do?
This was the question that kept creeping into my mind, and really the reason I enjoyed the book as much as I did. I’m a textbook introvert, on top of which I have social anxiety, so even knowing that the majority of people I will ever interact with are decent people, I’m still not comfortable talking with strangers. (In real life, anyway; I make up for it on the internet.) But the idea that something like this could happen, that you really don’t know who anyone is, and that what begins as a chance encounter and harmless (if anxiety-inducing) small talk could snowball into a situation completely out of control… it makes for quite a compelling story, one that’s unlikely to become any less so with time.
“Indeed,” says Baldacci, “it works as well now as it did when Highsmith first wrote it. Isn’t that the definition of a classic?”
Six down, ninety-four to go…