Too many psychological thrillers these days think they’ve done sufficient work by placing their female heroine under multiple threats of peril. They need to have a look at the dark and twisted novels of Patricia Highsmith to see how it’s really done. Highsmith knew that no amount of external threat can rival the psychological terror we are able to inflict on ourselves. In her first novel, Strangers on a Train (1950), she created a story of claustrophobic menace that turned any simplistic understanding of morality upside down.
Guy Haines and Charles Bruno are chance acquaintances on a train heading south to Texas. Guy, an architect, is travelling to see his estranged wife, Miriam, whom he hopes will finally agree to a divorce. Miriam is pregnant by a new lover, and Guy feels that here, at last, is the leverage required to settle the matter, though he is sure she will continue to kick up as many obstacles as she can. Guy has become steadily more impatient as he is nominally engaged to Anne, an altogether better prospect for the wife of a man with a budding career. Anne and her moneyed, harmonious family offer Guy the sort of social status he needs, and charming, elegant Anne inspires his genuine love.
Guy is accosted on the train by Charles Bruno who thrusts his company upon him. Bruno is already three sheets to the wind when they meet, and will drink steadily through their encounter. He has the sort of entangling presence that certain unstable people wield with cunning; a genius for ingratiating himself where he is not welcome. Guy drinks more in his presence than is wise and he ends up saying a little about Miriam – more than enough for Bruno to come to some astute conclusions. And so Bruno offers him partnership in a criminal scheme he’s been brewing for a while. Bruno hates his father and longs for him to be dead. He’d kill him if he thought he’d get away with it, but his homicidal desire is too evident. What he suggests to Guy is a tit for tat. He’ll kill Miriam if Guy will kill his father, and they will never be caught because there is no motive to link them to the crimes.
Guy is horrified by this idea and by Bruno himself. He ends the conversation and hopes never to see him again. But by the time he arrives in Metcalf, Miriam has miscarried and is threatening to accompany him to his new architectural project, a commission that could make his name. He can’t help but acknowledge a few murderous impulses towards her. When Miriam is found strangled at the local fair, Guy has the sickening sensation that his unconscious enmity has killed her, even though he is sure it was in the form of the all-too corporeal Bruno.
For Bruno turns out to be a man of queer passions. He loves his mother a little too much, and he has fallen into an idealistic veneration for Guy. This is a murder committed primarily out of twisted love – partly because he has been longing to reveal his own capabilities to himself, partly because he wants to offer it like a gift, a homage, to Guy. When Guy reacts with hostility to his actions, Bruno is deeply wounded. But not diverted from his determination to make Guy keep up his end of a bargain he never agreed to.
I won’t give away any more of the plot, but if you’ve seen the Hitchcock adaptation, you should know that from here on in, movie and book diverge. Hitchcock, with a mainstream cinema audience to please, keeps Guy riveted to his ‘good man’ persona, whereas in the book, Guy knows his integrity is lost from the moment he wishes Miriam dead, a moment that isn’t even articulated, but is no less potent for all that: we know he did because of the guilt he feels when she dies. From now on, the story of Guy will be a study in guilt and what it can make us do. Guy will find himself pushed to the extreme because the guilt he feels is so intolerable he will do anything – even compound his crimes – in the crazy desire to be free of it. I was writing last week about Patrick Modiano and his ability to create characters who are guilty until proven guilty. Guy is another in this mode. It’s a very common part of the human condition, and it makes a mockery of this idea that we have control over our lives to the extent that we can choose to be good or bad. We’re human and so, under duress, we do good things and we do bad things, and sometimes doing nothing is the most damning thing we do of all.
If Guy is the good man forced to the bad, then Bruno is the bad man who forces us to feel pity. Sure, he’s a fledgling psychopath, but it’s the love that’s inside him we cannot deny, however horrifying its manifestations may be. His descent into the worst terrors of alcoholism are car-crash mesmerising, and we wait on tenterhooks for the moment when he can no longer contain all his messed-up emotions – worship for Guy, pride in his cleverness, terror at his own steady disintegration. We know Bruno can’t be all bad, despite appearances, because Guy becomes bonded to him, in an act of brotherly recognition:
Each was what the other had not chosen to be, the cast-off self, what he thought he hated but perhaps in reality loved.’
This is not a pleasant book but it’s a gripping one. The claustrophobia that Highsmith builds up is brilliant and sickening. Although much of the book is about people doing dreadful things, its centre is the tragedy of our longing to be pure. Guy shows how nothing that has value in life – love, success, money – is worth a fig when set against the horror of feeling besmirched in our own sense of self-worth. Guilt dominates, and almost nothing can appease it at the height of its power. The kind of novel that sends a genuine chill down the spine.