Saturday, 7 December 2019

Strangers on a Train - Patricia Highsmith

Strangers on a Train was Highsmith's debut in 1950 and, filmed by Hitchcock a year later, made her name and her fortune. I was therefore excited to come across this nicely put-together Vintage edition. I had never read any Highsmith, but surely I should, given my abiding interest in American noir. Well, now I have and I have to say I am very disappointed.

The premise is, of course, brilliant. Complete strangers meet on the titular train and agree to murder one another's victim. What can possibly go wrong? What's not to keep us turning those pages all the way to denouement?

Well, the sheer number of pages, for a start. The novel is at least 30% too long. There isn't enough story to keep us interested, the characters are too simplistic (hard-working genius and hard-shirking rich wastrel), and the writing is too overwrought. Frankly I didn't care how they got their come-uppance, I just wanted it to end.

Surely the beauty of classic noir is brevity, whereas Highsmith gives us page after page of obvious filler, almost as if she is getting paid by the word. There is, to be fair, a stab at psychological insight, however I was not convinced. The women characters, in a novel by a woman, are so poor as to border on misogyny (tart, tart and doormat). There is literary style but it is stilted and occasionally perversely anachronistic. What I suppose is meant to be the final twist - how the detective gets Haines' confession, is too hackneyed even for an old-fashioned stage thriller and wouldn't have stood up as evidence in any court even in 1950. Had I not been bored stiff by that point, I would have laughed.

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