Book Club Questions: Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith

In Patricia Highsmith’s debut novel, we encounter Guy Haines and Charles Anthony Bruno, passengers on the same train. But while Guy is a successful architect in the midst of a divorce, Bruno turns out to be a sadistic psychopath who manipulates Guy into swapping murders with him. As Bruno carries out his twisted plan, Guy is trapped in Highsmith’s perilous world – where, under the right circumstances, anybody is capable of murder.

My friend and I both still needed to read a pulp fiction novel for our yearly book category challenge, so we picked this classic to read together. It was definitely quite the psychological journey, one which I would probably best describe as “exhausting” – bizarre, horrifying, and comically ridiculous in turns. If you are a fan of horrible people as protagonists, surprisingly unpredictable thrillers, and stupid murders, this is the book for you.

Discussion questions below the cut!

Throughout the book, Guy frequently changes out who he currently blames for his general dissatisfaction with life: Miriam, his job, Bruno, etc. Do you think any of these really are to blame? Where do you think Guy’s disatisfaction with life comes from?

Do you feel Miriam and Ann are stereotypes of women rather than fully developed people? Why or why not? Do they play an active or a passive role in the story? Would you have liked to see more from the female characters or do you think they were appropriately written for the story Highsmith was telling?

The process of Miriam’s murder has a decidedly sexual tone, whereas Bruno’s father’s does not. Does Bruno’s father’s murder have sexual tones in a different fashion, or does it not have that element at all? What role do women play in expressing male desire in this novel? In what other ways is male desire expressed throughout? In what ways do you think expressions of homosexual desire have changed in literature from Patricia Highsmith’s era to our own? Why has this change happened?

Did you feel that Guy’s decision to murder Bruno’s father was inevitable from the start of the book? Did it become inevitable? Or were you never sure if he was going to kill him until it happened? What in Highsmith’s writing contributed to your feeling? Did this feeling heighten the suspense or lessen it?

Throughout the book, Bruno often seems unstoppable, in large part because he doesn’t listen to anything anyone says but instead frequently considers only his own desires of the moment – even if it goes against his own self-preservation. Even when he makes promises, such as telling Guy they won’t see each other again after his father’s murder, he frequently goes back on them. Which do you find more frightening: the well-planned menace of someone like Hannibal Lecter, or the chaotic whirl that is Charles Bruno? Why?

Consider this quote from when Bruno attempts to explain Guy’s thoughts to Ann late in the book:

“People, feelings, everything! Double! Two people in each person. There’s also a person exactly the opposite of you, like the unseen part of you, somewhere in the world, and he waits in ambush.” It thrilled him to say Guy’s words, though he hadn’t liked hearing them, he remembered, because Guy had said the two people were mortal enemies, too, and Guy had meant him and himself.

Now consider this quote from Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novella The Double:

I am my own enemy, I am my own murderer! My own murderer, that is what I am!

In what ways do Guy and Bruno “murder” each other? In what ways do they “murder” themselves? Aside from them never meeting in the first place, do you think there is any way their own murder (of self) could have been avoided? Or was their mutual destruction inevitable once they met?

Bruno initially insists to Guy that “anyone can do a murder.” At the time, Guy doesn’t believe him, but at the end of the book Guy realizes, “That’s the mistake […] that nobody knows what a murderer looks like. A murderer looks like anybody!” Do you agree with this belief? Why or why not?

At the end of the book, Guy tries to come to various conclusions about who “society” is and how society does and does not  concern itself with justice (both moral and legal). Guy talks about how he himself saw apprehending Bruno after Miriam’s murder to be the police’s problem and not his own – even though he was the only one who could possibly know of Bruno’s involvement. Do you think Guy was responsible for telling the police his suspicions? Do you think you are responsible (legally and/or morally) to assist in bringing a criminal to justice if you have information related to their case? Are you responsible to give this assistance directly (vigilante justice) or indirectly (by informing law enforcement)? Where do we draw the line in our personal responsibility for justice, and why?

If you use these questions to shape an online discussion post of your own, please link back and give credit.

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