Review: Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith – a mind trip for your next train ride

Over spring break I was given an opportunity to read a new edition of a classic novel I had never read before. Free books? Yes, please!

I was thrilled to get my copy of Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train in the mail. Opening the package I was delighted to see that it was hard bound in simple unfinished black cloth, with heavy modern type on the spine, and a bloody red hard canvas slipcase that betrayed the murder mystery’s contents. The 2018 edition of the 1950 Cresset Press classic was carefully designed by The Folio Society to feel lovely to hold and look good in a personal library.

Tuning the spine over into my palm the book slipped from its casing and I discovered a drawing embossed on the cover. It was dark and bold, unmarred by any words. A silhouette of a passenger train loomed in the right hand corner against a matte grey sky, it’s glimmering red eye staring down the white tracks that intersected at the center.

Right away I felt the significance of the image in the merging of the tracks and the unstoppable force of the train pulsing toward its destiny. Seven more of the illustrations of Geoff Grandfield were inside. They all match the style of the protagonist’s architectural profession with their clean shapes, primary colors, and meaningful minimalism.

First I read it at the bus stop, then on the bus, then in the few precious moments I had before my shift at work began, and during my lunch break. Strangers on a Train dives immediately into the setting of its title, and I had a taste of regret lingering as I read. My choice to begin it without some peace and time to dream was bothersome, because within paragraphs the book filled me with nostalgia for my own time spent on the rails.

The cross country train ride from Atlantic to Pacific took about four days total. I could lean all the way back and savor a beer while I soaked up the changing scenery, from the autumn blushed wooded hills of rural Massachusetts to the dilapidated industrial graveyards of Cleveland and Chicago. A dense thunderstorm danced all night through the Nebraska prairie as the train drove hard into the west. The storm gave chase but was shattered into lonely sheep by the Colorado Rockies.

A pastel painted sun rose over the desert, and the sky was doubled in the Great Salt Lake’s mirror surface. Finally the jagged granite ridges of the Sierra Nevada’s wrapped in the golden halo of cinematic magic hour welcomed me home as the train twisted down the pass to the matchstick nervous hills and valley around Sacramento.

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A good read that looks great!

As I read the opening chapters I felt my wanderlust tugging at my sleeve intensely. Nothing beats a train for thinking or for reading. I immediately felt a kinship with the main character, Guy Haines, who wanted nothing more than to be left alone with his book and his thoughts while riding across Texas, but he is interrupted by the seemingly harmless affluent drunk Charles Bruno.

Their conversation is light and easy at first, then penetrating and a little concerning as the pair discover they both have a person in their life whom they would like to be rid of. Guy admits that his life would be made far more simple if it weren’t for his cheating wife Miriam, who refuses to give him a divorce. Bruno tells guy very frankly that he has a deep hatred for his own father, and he is most eager to share that he has thought extensively about the perfect solution.

If a pair of perfect strangers were to trade murder victims, the prime suspect would be provided an alibi, being distanced from the occasion and otherwise engaged, and it would leave investigators stumped as to the identity of the killer, having no motive to follow. It is an interesting proposal that Guy dismisses as pure fancy, innocently traveling on to visit his girlfriend Anne and her family in Mexico. Meanwhile, Bruno doubles back to Texas without Guy’s knowledge to murder Guy’s estranged wife, locking Guy into a contract of guilt that could force him to kill Charles’ father.

I eventually got home from work and had a few days off to dive deep into the book, fueled by endless black coffee and a desire to have all questions answered by tale’s end. Incredibly, Strangers on a Train was Patricia Highsmith’s first novel, and it was so thirstily received upon publication in 1950 that Alfred Hitchcock adapted it into a movie the following year. It’s plot was used again more loosely in the comedy Throw Mama from the Train, a movie I loved growing up. There are quite a few differences, however, that make the book worthy of reading.

Patricia Highsmith certainly has a way with words, her sensory descriptions can pull at your edges as you are hopelessly drawn into a setting. She also leads you with the breadcrumb trail of your own puzzle eager brain into the minds of her characters. They spiral endlessly into guilt, paranoia, obsession, lies, hatred, and alcoholism. It is a tense read that leaves you screaming at characters mistakes as they happen, and you have to keep reading with hope they will get wise and take control of themselves.

Strangers on a Train is everything I love about watching a thriller. It has the added bonus of being able to use my train ticket to hold my place as I look up and watch the next town roll past me like a viewfinder toy, and I never have to plug it in to find out what happens next!

The Folio Society edition of Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith, illustrated by Geoff Grandfield is available exclusively from http://www.foliosociety.com/book/SGR

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