Books — 04 July 2012


Julia Hones

The saying that says that “nobody is a prophet in his own land” applies well to Patricia Highsmith whose literary work was unappreciated in the United States for the entire length of her career. Perhaps the reason for this is in the statements that she upholds in her mystery stories.

The thriller “Strangers on a train” – her first novel – proved to be a commercial success in 1950, and was filmed by Alfred Hitchcok. It is the story of two men, Guy and Bruno, who meet for the first time in a train. During their encounter they make confessions to each other about their private lives, and this exchange leads to an insane relationship from which Guy is unable to extricate himself.

Highsmith’s style is simple but powerful. The complexity of the characters and their opposite motivations lead to edgy situations that will keep the reader turning the pages to know what will happen next. The originality of her story is, in my opinion, in the fact that Highsmith weaves into it certain reflections that arise as a result of their behaviors. In doing so, she expresses hints of social criticism that may have annoyed the status quo. “He found himself wondering, therefore, from time to time, if he might have enjoyed his crime in some way, derived some primal satisfaction from it – how else could one really explain in mankind the continued toleration of wars, the perennial enthusiasm for wars when they came, if not for some primal pleasure in killing?”

The central question that lingers in my mind after reading “Strangers on a Train” is: how far can a human being go in his actions when he is coaxed by fear and intimidation? To what extent can the human mind be coerced to come to terms with its own perversity?

Patricia Highsmith suggests that under certain circumstances, the rules of logic do not work; the limits between good and evil can become blurred.

The only weakness of the story is in some mistakes that Guy, the architect, makes as a result of the disturbing relationship with Bruno, an insane man. But the originality of this thought-provoking thriller compensates for all its weaknesses.

Patricia Highsmith (1921-1995) is the author of more than twenty books. She has won the O.Henry Memorial Award, the Edgar Allan Poe Award, Le Grand Prix de Litterature Policiere, and the Award of the Crime Writers Association of Great Britain. She died in Switzerland in 1995.


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(2) Readers Comments

  1. “how far can a human being go in his actions when he is coaxed by fear and intimidation? To what extent can the human mind be coerced to come to terms with its own perversity?”
    — A profound question Julia! And I’ve pondered the same. People often easily blame powerful class or governments for wars, make majority as victims, but I found it impossible to have some real disasters if the war is just one sided choice. But why? Why people are so willing to kill under certain circumstance? And HIghsmith showed us how easily an ordinary person can commit “extraordinary” deeds.
    I did not read the book but I would agree with the error your mentioned in this book. Highsmith created characters and scenarios for her own purpose so realistically, some stories are just not as convincing. But thinking about what she tried to reveal behind stories, those errors don’t seem matter so much.
    Wonderful review of my favorite author. I must read the book in future (I read a some pages but I found I lost interest in reading this book because I watched the movie)

    • I just reread your review and again agree with what you said. I found an error in my comment where I used “error” for “weakness” in your review, which was not accurate at all, since they means totally different things.

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