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'Strangers On a Train' by Patricia Highsmith

The talented Ms. Highsmith

Sunday, September 02, 2001

By John Freeman


Strangers On a Train

By Patricia Highsmith


It’s somehow fitting that Patricia Highsmith was born in Texas, for the only territory more murder-obsessed than her native state is the one created in her imagination.

Her fiction teems with untoward deaths. Hapless victims are felled by rifle butts, blows to the head, strangleholds; one unlucky Frenchman is even stomped to death by his enormous, truffle-hunting pig.

Such wicked demises have attracted directors like Alfred Hitchcock and Anthony Minghella to Highsmith’s singular oeuvre. What Minghella couldn’t capture on screen in “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” however, is the sly, subversive way Highsmith dispatches her characters.

What makes these crimes chilling is not their vividness -- Highsmith is no stranger to gore -- but how mundanely they are executed. For her characters, murder is about as exciting as pruning a hedge or shopping for vegetables.

Death is not a dramatic conclusion, but merely another gag in the farce of life, where the stage is most often a domestic scene. As Highsmith wrote in her 1966 book, “Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction” “art has nothing to do with morality, convention or moralizing.”

Given this mordant philosophical bent, it’s no surprise Highsmith’s career has languished in America; Yanks like their suspense stories with strong-jawed heroes.

Now, riding the “Ripley” tide, Norton is republishing Highsmith’s backlist, starting with a rich volume of stories and two devilishly good novels.

Reading these three books together, one is struck by how Highsmith uses crime as a lens to peer into the sinister machinations of human behavior. At the core of her philosophical tales lurks a deep belief in our malleability -- we will do anything as long as it suits our needs.

This notion forms the crux of her first novel, “Strangers on a Train” (1950), in which a famous architect and a traveler named Bruno strike up a long conversation in a Pullman car. Locked into a dead-end marriage and pining for a flashy sweetheart, Guy confesses to Bruno that he’d like a divorce.

Bruno surreptitiously guides their conversation to murder and delivers an opinion that could have come straight from Highsmith’s mouth:

“Any kind of person can murder. Purely circumstances and not a thing to do with temperament! People get so far -- and it takes just the least little thing to push them over the brink.”

The first of many sociopaths who stalk Highsmith’s fiction, Bruno is cleanly and compellingly drawn -- cool, winning, and likable, a precursor to Hannibal Lecter.

“A Suspension of Mercy” also manipulates the reader’s loyalty, but to a greater degree. Set in the English countryside, the novel depicts a writer’s slide into madness.

Sydney Bartleby, a failing novelist eager to break into television, retreats to the country with his wife, Alicia, hoping fresh air will revive his work. There he blames his continued stagnation on his wife, whom he beats and berates. He daydreams about killing her, and even paces through the motions of how he would dispose of the body.

Ironically, these exercises rekindle his prose. It’s too late, however, to patch things up with his wife, who decides they need some time apart.

So enraptured is Sydney with his fantasy that when his wife turns up missing, he thinks his script has come to life.

The pieces collected in “Selected Stories” reveal Highsmith wrestling with her themes -- injustice, moral ambiguity, the blade of cruelty at the heart of human interactions -- more nakedly than in her novels.

“The Animal Lover’s Book of Beastly Murder” showcases a handful of delightful revenge yarns, in which subjugated dogs, goats, elephants, and the aforementioned hog strike back at their abusive owners. Narrated from each animal’s point of view, the stories encourage us to side with the beasts over man.

“Little Tales of Misogyny” translates this message into the human realm. With a shrill but thrilling economy, Highsmith illuminates how women are treated not much better than barnyard creatures.

In her collections, “Slowly, Slowly in the Wind” (1979), “The Black House” (1981), and “Mermaids on the Golf Course” (1985), Highsmith probes this theme further in tales that are marvelously subtle and sophisticated. Whereas her early fiction revolves around a central conceit, here she focuses on characters, masterfully sketching the contours of a life with a single gesture.

This peculiar brand of quicksilver storytelling coaxed a million people to read her 1953 gay love story, “The Price of Salt,” an unusual best seller given the mores of the time. Highsmith continued to write about gay and bisexual characters throughout her career, linking the fallibility of conventional romance with her own brooding preoccupations.

It’s appropriate that one must look to filmmakers to evoke Highsmith’s prose, for ultimately her art is cinematic rather than literary. She seduces us with whiskey-smooth surfaces only to lead us blindly into darker terrain.

John Freeman is a free-lance writer based in New York.

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