Up-and-coming architect, Guy Haines, is traveling to Texas to obtain a divorce from Miriam, pregnant with another man’s child. He has nothing but contempt for her and cannot wait to begin a new life with more sophisticated and loving Anne. On the train, he meets slender, disturbing Charles Bruno, who hates his father. With a lot of booze Bruno goads Guy into confessing his hatred for Miriam. Bruno then proposes a double murder plot, where each would kill the other’s problem.  Appalled, Guy leaves, forgetting his book of Plato.

Not ten days later while vacationing with Anne’s family in Mexico, Guy learns from his anxious mother that Miriam has been murdered. Increasingly tormented that the unstable character on the train may have actually done it, Guy finds his life unraveling as Bruno mails evidence that he is Miriam’s killer, threatens to expose Guy as the instigator, and leaves anonymous letters for Anne. Guy’s work suffers. He drinks heavily and slowly sinks into a state where he realizes his only salvation is to kill Bruno’s father according to the precise plans that have repeatedly been sent. He does.

Guy’s career seems to pick up. But Bruno cannot leave him alone. He turns up uninvited at Guy’s wedding and insinuates himself menacingly into his married life. Guy is miserable, but plays along, aware that he has an impulse to defend Bruno as well as himself. He tells many lies and is wracked with guilt. Anne is worried and suspicious. The two men are bound by their secret, which encompasses a kind of animal attraction rooted in the sensation of having taken a life.

Things could continue indefinitely but for Gerard, the persistent but clever detective who worked for Guy’s father. Having known Bruno for years, he already suspects him of his father’s murder; then he finds Guy’s Plato. To say any more would spoil the gripping conclusion.


A powerful study of a psychopath, which also address the capacity of an ordinary, decent person to become a senseless killer. Highsmith uses omniscient narration to explore the minds of Bruno, Guy and, sometimes, their mothers. The realistic narrative of the two murders is both shocking and humorously banal.

Bruno is pathologically obsessed with the planning of perfect crimes, especially murder. He may have spent years looking for a “guy” like Guy. He also would like to kill himself. Devoted to his mother, he hates all other women and somehow thinks that his father’s death will make them even closer. He worships Guy. He is constantly disappointed.

But Guy is different. Aside from a youthful misadventure in his first marriage, he has artistic gifts, a promising future, and a deep sense of social responsibility. Exposure to Bruno reduces him to a fearful wreck and transforms him into a killer. Bruno senses no guilt at all, but Guy cannot function without absolution, and he cannot find absolution without confession.

Guy is perplexed by his own reaction to Bruno, why he tolerates the intrusions and fails to turn him in. A persistent theme is the idea that everyone has opposites within: good and evil, dutiful and dangerous, gentle and cruel (see esp. p. 163). Another is the dominant role of alcohol, an especially interesting angle in the years that turned the habit into a disease.

This chilling psychodrama was Highsmith’s first book. The following year when Hitchcock made it into a considerably watered-down film, it projected her from a marginal comic-book writer to one of the most successful yet least appreciated of American crime writers. Her many novels are noted for their controversial homoerotic overtones and antiheroes who, literally, get away with murder.

The most disturbing aspect of this tale is its horrifying plausibility.


Made into film: Strangers on a Train (Hitchcock, 1951)



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