Give me books, fruit, french wine and fine weather and a little music out of doors. --John Keats

Monday, January 12, 2015

"Strangers on a Train" by Patricia Highsmith

I saw the Hitchcock movie of this book (and loved it) years and years ago, without even realizing it was based on a novel. Then, much more recently, I saw two other movies based on Patricia Highsmith novels: The Two Faces of January and The Talented Mr Ripley. They were both really dark, tense and compelling, but also oddly funny, in a twisted way, which was also true of the Hitchcock movie. When I found out one writer was behind all these stories, I knew I had to read her.

So, Kathy bought me this novel plus three of the Ripley series for Christmas. I chose to read Strangers on a Train first because it was Highsmith's debut. I don't remember many details about the film version, but in my mind it is a lighter, cleaner, neater story than the one in the book.

Highsmith's prose is good - elegant without being overwritten, taut without being clichéd - but I think it's her psychology, rather than her sentence-making, that really lifts her above the average thriller/noir crowd. You inhabit the skulls and lives of two very different characters in this book - one of them a psychopath, the other not - and yet it's what happens to the non-psychopath that fills you with dread, that makes you think: 'there but for a twist of fate...'

Strangers on a Train reminded me of two of my favorite novels: Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment and Donna Tartt's The Secret History. Like both those books, it is essentially about the thousand tiny, banal pressures and fears and desires that might lead a sane, intelligent person to murder another human being, and - most of all - about the horrifying, life-staining guilt they feel afterwards.

Kathy asked me just now if I enjoyed it, and I said 'Maybe enjoy isn't the word I'd choose, but it's really good'. Perhaps it seemed even darker than it was due to my state of mind last week, in the wake of the Paris shootings, but I think even on a beach vacation this is a book that would worm its way into the depths of your mind, would unsettle and disturb you. It was never less than compelling, but I must admit I feel a certain relief at having come to the end of it. It was more twisted and less funny than any of those three

All the same, I am excited to have discovered a major writer with a huge body of work, almost all of which is new to me. This is similar to how I felt after reading my first Ellroy novel, or my first Philip K. Dick novel. With one difference: I am not going to plunge myself into a Highsmith binge - not right now, anyway. I think I'll wait till the days are longer and the air is warmer and the grass is greener. I need something less bleak to get me through the winter.

POSTSCRIPT: We watched the Hitchcock movie version of this a couple of nights ago, and it was not as good as I remembered. Either that, or it just suffered in comparison to the book. It certainly seemed far more dated than the book: a superficial melodrama, where the book was a naturalistic thought-experiment. And, crucially, it chickened out of the central question: why a normal, intelligent, 'good' person would murder an innocent stranger and how they would feel afterward. So, despite the fact that it was directed by one of the greatest directors of all time and the screenplay co-written by a noir legend (Raymond Chandler), if I were Patricia Highsmith, I would have been pretty upset by this adaptation (though, apparently, she praised it when it first came out). The good news, very recently announced, is that David Fincher is to make a movie version of the book - and I really hope that's what it will be, rather than a remake of the original movie - entitled simply Strangers. I have great expectations for that film, as Fincher did not flinch from screening the darkest, subtlest elements of Gone Girl. I can also totally imagine Ben Affleck as Guy Haines.


Amy Crawshaw said...

Just read in the newspaper this morning that the director who filmed "Gone Girl" is going to do a remake of the Hitchcock film of this book. Based on your review, though, I agree with you, it's probably not the right time of year to read this!

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

I read The Talented Mr Ripley this year and just loved it. The woman had some serious writing skills! I can't wait to try this one now.