Friday, November 04, 2011

Strangers On A Train by Patricia Highsmith

I believe I have mentioned here before that my beloved Father told me when I was young the legacy he would leave me wouldn't be financial; it would be an appreciation for books, music, and films.  I have scads of fond memories of watching movies with him, Hitchcock's Strangers On A Train among them.  Watching those same films without him always takes me back to my childhood and presents a happiness and sadness all its own. 

There was something about Hitchcock's movie: Robert Walker alternately oozing easy charm and icy menace while Farley Granger was all curly-headed, desperate and decked out in tennis whites;  the murder scene shot as though through eyeglasses on the ground, appropriately distorted; the merry-go-round scene where the story, quite literally, comes crashing down.   

It wasn't until a few years ago that I learned Patricia Highsmith had worked on the screenplay but it was a novel well before that, her first.  In fact, I knew very little about Highsmith until recently.   I knew of her Ripley character (I had seen the Matt Damon film) but that was about it, despite years as a bookseller and even more as a devout reader.  My friend Susan was kind enough to set me straight, lending me Patricia Highsmith: Selected Novels and Short StoriesThe bio in the introduction is that of a saucy Southerner well ahead of her time and answering to no one's definitions of normalcy, especially in 1950's America.  

That said, the novel Strangers On A Train bears only a passing resemblance to Hitchcock's film so I was really torn at first.  In the book, Guy Haines is an architect, Bruno is the character's last name, there's no tennis, no potentially incriminating cigarette lighter, no merry-go-round.  However, if you can get the film out of your head, the novel is a well-written, taut story of crime, punishment, and self-punishment.  She writes with a hard-bitten tightness reminiscent of Chandler or Jim Thompson, like when she describes how Bruno becomes resolved to kill Guy's soon-to-be ex-wife, "Miriam had become an object, small and hard" and how quickly he grew to hate everything about her ("The red socks with the red sandals infuriated him").  There is a strong homo-erotic subtext between Guy and Bruno throughout the novel that must have been practically scandalous in 1950.  

I do think the second half of the novel dragged a bit and the events leading up to the second murder were less believable but she does manage to get it back by the end.  The collection includes another non-Ripley novel, The Price of Salt, and over a dozen short stories.  There is a great deal to this author's work and the woman herself and I plan on reading more.

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