Book Review: Strangers on a Train


Kicking off my year of reading a book a month, Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith was my book of choice for January. I’d bought the book way over a year ago after hearing it mentioned on Loose Women (not an educated reference by the panel but by a guest who was starring in the stage version) and so ordered it from work in the hope that I’d be bothered to read it. Clearly this didn’t happen during 2013 or 2014 but its rave reviews despite its small size convinced me to pick it as my first book of this year.

Strangers on a Train is a psychological crime novel, written and set in 1950s America. In the first chapter we are introduced to Guy Haines, an architect travelling south to organise his divorce, and Charles ‘Bruno’ Bruno, a young and unhinged New Yorker. During this train journey, the reader is introduced to the troubles that these characters face; Guy's wife is pregnant by another man and Bruno's rich father is with-holding money from him. After an alcohol fuelled evening, Bruno brashly proposes that he and Guy exchange murders, suggesting that Guy kills his father and in return he will kill Guy’s wife. The story follows these strangers through murder, investigations and the unbreakable connections that form between them.

Right from the beginning, my attention was held by the intense characters and ever changing and completely unpredictable storyline. What I particularly enjoyed was Highsmith’s depiction of Bruno, writing him as (I feel) an entirely believable character despite being a psychopath. In parts of this book, Bruno reminded me of the narrator of The Tell Tale Heart by Edgar Allen Poe because of his calm and calculated approach to murder and overwhelming need to kill. In contrast to Bruno, Highsmith wrote Guy as a relatable figure which allowed her to cleverly manipulate the reader's sense of what qualifies as reasonable. This, in conjunction with the subjective plot, created a very thought provoking read, leaving me questioning where my own morals would lie in the same situations.

Usually my genre of choice is crime fiction and so I was expecting to enjoy reading this book. However, what I wasn’t expecting was for it to be gripping without being scary. In the past I’ve read a lot of Linwood Barclay, which although I’ve enjoyed, I feel as if I was gripped with fear rather than by the storyline. Compared to the likes of Barclay’s novels, Highsmith’s storyline was much more mentally thrilling than frightening and because of the easy to read style, I was able to read for hours on end without becoming bored.

At around 250 pages, this book certainly isn’t big, taking me 12 days to read; frequent readers would probably need no more than a couple of days to finish. The small size combined with short chapters really allowed me to enjoy this novel because as a non-reader I’m often daunted and put off by long, hefty looking books.

I’d definitely recommend Strangers on a Train to anybody looking for a fast-paced and interesting novel. I would also recommend this book to anybody who enjoys classic detective novels because essentially this book is a detective story from another perspective, told in a way that retains the investigation and intrigue that are so vital to the genre. There is nothing exclusively ‘grown-up’ about this book (Linwood Barclay novels are often unnecessarily sweary and sex sceney) so I’m sure that readers GCSE and upwards would enjoy it. Not only has Strangers on a Train given me the confidence to read more frequently but it has also introduced me to Patricia Highsmith, an author that I’d definitely like to read more of.

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