Critical Context

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

In Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction, Patricia Highsmith reveals that her first published novel, Strangers on a Train, had its origin in the idea of two men exchanging murders. The resulting relationship established a precedent for many of her subsequent books, with their recurring pattern of “two men, usually quite different in make-up, sometimes obviously the good and the evil, sometimes merely ill-matched friends.” Often, as in Bruno’s crush on Guy, homosexual attraction is part of the relationship. Strangers on a Train is also typical of Highsmith’s later writing in its focus on the criminal mind.

An influence on Highsmith was the writing of Fyodor Dostoevski. In Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction, she cites his Prestupleniye i nakazaniye (Crime and Punishment, 1886) as evidence that the suspense genre can include works that are profound. The criminal’s freedom in going beyond society’s laws is an idea explored by Dostoevski and later by the French existentialists, whose writings have also been cited by critics as among Highsmith’s influences. It is an idea that excites Charles Bruno, who relishes committing the perfect murder as the high point of his life. This is not to say Highsmith and her novel endorse such an idea. “Existentialism is self-indulgent,” she told Diana Cooper-Clark, and she cautioned that the existentialist ideas in Strangers on a Train come from a psychopath.

Strangers on a Train, and the Alfred Hitchcock film of the same name (1951) based on the novel, made Patricia Highsmith famous. Later novels such as Stephen King’s Misery (1987), with its psychopath’s need to connect herself with the object of her hero-worship, and Thomas Harris’s The Silence of the Lambs (1988), with its exploration of the mind of a serial murderer, have aspects in common with Strangers on a Train, but they differ from it in Highsmith’s choice of criminals as her protagonists, rather than victims or detectives. The disturbing power of Strangers on a Train to challenge readers’ moral predispositions and understanding of motives is, perhaps, its strongest claim to be taken seriously as literature.