Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Strangers on a Train was Highsmith’s first published work, written primarily while living at the Yaddo Artists’ Colony. This novel introduces key themes in Highsmith’s canon: duality, performativity, and alienation in postwar America.
The novel opens with Guy Haines traveling by train to grant his unfaithful wife, Miriam, a divorce. Guy sits near Charles Bruno, a wealthy and crass man who strikes up a conversation and invites Guy to dine in his private car. Guy is unsettled by Bruno, who manages to draw out both the story of Miriam’s betrayals and Guy’s reason for traveling. Bruno likens Guy’s wife to his father, arguing that both typify the corruption of America. After so doing, Bruno proposes they swap murders—Bruno could murder Miriam, and then Guy could murder Bruno’s father. Guy, ever socially conscious, thinks Bruno is joking, laughs, and leaves, assuming the two of them will never meet again. The conversation characterizes Guy and Bruno as seeming opposites: whereas Guy is refined, soft-spoken, intellectual, and industrious, Bruno is coarse, verbally explosive, juvenile, and lazy.
Guy fails to get the divorce because Miriam decides she would rather benefit from his new financial and social success as an architect. Bruno learns of Miriam’s newest betrayal and decides to act, feeling he has a “purpose” for the first time in his life. In a plan ripped from a pulp-fiction plot, Bruno travels to Texas, follows Miriam, and strangles her. Pleased with his perfect execution, he returns home and waits for the right time to contact Guy for phase two.
Guy’s reaction to Miriam’s murder illustrates the alienation caused by...
(The entire section is 692 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series, Revised Edition)
Strangers on a Train is a psychological thriller. The novel’s events take place over several months and seem to occur during the period of its composition in the 1940’s. The story opens with Guy Haines, a young architect, traveling on a train from his home in New York City to meet his wife Miriam, who lives in Texas. They have been separated for three years, and Miriam is pregnant by another man. The negative emotions stirred in Guy when he thinks about her are countered by thoughts of the woman he now loves, Anne Faulkner, and by the hope Miriam will grant him a divorce. Guy is also hopeful he will soon hear he has been chosen to design a prestigious country club in Florida, a project that could make his name in his profession.
During the train ride, a stranger, Charles Bruno, engages Guy in conversation. Bruno, who lives with his parents on Long Island, New York, is devoted to his mother and hates his wealthy father. Sensing that Miriam could create trouble for Guy about the divorce and in his professional life, Bruno proposes that he and Guy exchange murders: Bruno will kill Miriam if Guy will kill Bruno’s father. Each man would be able to arrange an alibi, and as they have met by chance, no one would be able to connect them to each other. Guy is sickened by the proposal and rejects it.
Eventually, however, the exchange of murders takes place. Learning that Guy is in Mexico, and without consulting him, Bruno goes to Texas and strangles...
(The entire section is 604 words.)
Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Guy Haines is on his way from New York to his hometown, Metcalf, Texas, to convince his estranged wife Miriam (who is pregnant by Owen Markman) to agree to a divorce. On the train, Guy meets Charles Bruno, a flamboyant alcoholic, who, upon learning of Haines’s situation, proposes to kill Miriam if Haines will kill Bruno’s father in return. The crime would be perfect, Bruno insists, because no connection between the two could ever be established, and no motivation could ever be discovered. Without a motive, the police would never be able to solve either crime. Haines vacillates, but he does not agree to Bruno’s plan.
In Metcalf, Haines finds Miriam more resistant to the divorce than ever. She wants to reignite their relationship and move with Haines and the unborn baby to Florida, the site of Haines’s lucrative new building project. Disgusted, Haines leaves Metcalf and learns soon after that Miriam has miscarried. Later, Bruno comes to Metcalf, finds Miriam’s home, follows her and two friends to the amusement park, and strangles Miriam.
Haines soon receives a note from Bruno identifying himself as the murderer. Haines does not report Bruno to the police; he waits for the police to find him. Meanwhile, Haines and Anne become engaged. Haines is unable to work, as his knowledge of Bruno’s crime seems to erode his creativity. Bruno continues to call, send letters, and stalk Haines. Bruno demands that Haines complete his part of their “bargain” by killing Bruno’s father. Otherwise, Bruno will speak to the authorities.
Bruno sends to Haines a deluge of maps detailing the grounds and layout of the Bruno family mansion, suggesting routes to and from the mansion, and identifying the exact spot to scale the wall surrounding it. Bruno has planned Haines’s crime meticulously: He specifies the exact number of steps in the mansion, marking those that squeak and should be avoided, and he provides a poetic memory device to enable Haines...
(The entire section is 808 words.)
Bibliography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Cochran, David. “ Some Torture That Perversely Eased’: Patricia Highsmith and the Everyday Schizophrenia of American Life.” Clues 18, no. 2 (Fall-Winter, 1997): 157-180. Analysis of Highsmith’s fiction, including Strangers on a Train, as subversive of the dominant political and cultural assumptions of Cold War America.
Harrison, Russell. Patricia Highsmith. New York: Twayne, 1997. An introduction to the author and her work, with a chronology and a bibliography. Half of chapter 2 discusses Strangers on a Train, praising its psychological intensity and finding its existentialist themes impressive.
Highsmith, Patricia. “Patricia Highsmith: Interview.” Interview by Diana Cooper-Clark. The Armchair Detective 14, no. 4 (Fall, 1981): 313-320. Highsmith delivers her views on a number of topics. She opines that existentialism is self-indulgent; that not everyone is capable of murder; and that the ability to murder has more to do with heredity than environment.
Highsmith, Patricia. Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction. Boston: The Writer, 1966. Advice for authors in which Highsmith cites her own writings, including Strangers on a Train, to illustrate her points.
Klein, Kathleen Gregory. “Patricia Highsmith.” In And Then There Were Nine . . . : More Women of Mystery, edited by Jane S. Bakerman. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1985. Argues Highsmith’s crime fiction, beginning with Strangers on a Train, expands the genre’s conventions by challenging “either/or” thinking and by suggesting that anyone is capable of murder.
Mahoney, Mary Kay. “A Train Running on Two Sets of Tracks: Highsmith’s and Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train.” In It’s a Print! Detective Fiction from Page to Screen, edited by William Reynolds and Elizabeth Trembley. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1994. Argues that Hitchcock’s film shifts the novel’s focus on psychological analysis to a focus on action and suspense and de-emphasizes the novel’s similarities between Guy and Bruno by transforming Guy into an innocent hero.