On Monday, October 5th, the 7% Solution Book Club meets to discuss Patricia Highsmith’s debut, Strangers on a Train. November’s book is The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, by Agatha Christie. As always, book club selections are 10% off at the registers in the month of their selection.
- Post by Molly
Patricia Highsmith, in her long career, became one of the world’s most renowned crime novelists, and was one of the first women to be accepted into the mystery cannon as a master of psychological suspense. She has stayed in print continuously, when most of her female contemporaries had no hope of a classic reissue.
Her often-filmed Ripley stories catapulted her into long-lasting fame; yet even her debut novel, Strangers on a Train, was made into a classic noir by Hitchcock with a large following to this day. While many of the greatest mystery plots have been replicated often enough that it is difficult to notice the creativity of even the original, Highsmith’s unique simplicity of narrative, especially in her debut, stands alone, and feels as disturbingly plausible today as when it was first published.
Highsmith had many obsessions throughout her life, including at times, a preference for the company of snails over that of people. In her writings, she is fixated on obsession itself, and with the violence hidden within an ordinary individual, brought out by the repressive dysfunctions of a conservative society. She concerns herself with the point at which obsession becomes compulsion, and the moment when that compulsion becomes action. Highsmith’s style is almost synonymous with the definition of noir; her novels are characterized by as much atmosphere as action; she follows ordinary people changed by violent acts, and has no easy division of character into good or bad, cop or criminal.
If noir is the moment when obsession becomes action, then Strangers on a Train is in its set-up, the very definition of noir. Two men meet on a train. One, Hugo, is plagued by his father; the other, Guy, by his wife. They agree to swap murders, for this way none could form a connection between the murderer and the victim. When one goes through with his plan, the other must decide whether to fulfill his part of the agreement, turn the other man in, or find some other way to disentangle himself.
Strangers on a Train is very much a mid-century novel. Highsmith, like many intellectuals of her generation, saw in the legacy of WWII and in the hypocritical post-war world an answer to an important philosophical quandary: Would you kill someone if you knew that no one would find out and there would be no consequences? Her answer might read: Yes, but there are always consequences.
Highsmith was the perfect 1950s writer, writing about the dissonance between a beauteous exterior and a rotten interior, in a society obsessed with keeping up appearances. Her characters reflect this – Hugo wishes to bump off his father to receive his inheritance, for he cannot abide the notion of working or of asking his father for money. Guy, meanwhile, finds his wife inconvenient because she is pregnant by another man, yet refuses to divorce Guy until after the child’s birth, and Guy plans to remarry. In each case, humiliation is equated to injustice, which then spurs malice and murder.
Most unusually for her time, Highsmith did not to bother restore societal order with her endings. Her cheerful serial killers walk off into the sunset, a la The Talented Mr. Ripley. The Price of Salt, her tale of obsession and love between two women, was the first novel to be published featuring a lesbian affair and a happy ending (previously, novels with gay characters in relationships had to end tragically in order to be published). Highsmith writes society as if it is only a thin veneer, a smear of oil on the surface, covering our deep and instinctual need for chaos, violence, revenge, and individual expression.
The Seven Percent Solution Book Club meets Monday, October 5th, at 7 PM up on BookPeople’s 3rd floor to discuss this noir classic. If enough folks show up, we might even screen the Hitchcock film after our discussion! You can find copies of Strangers on a Train on our shelves and via bookpeople.com. Want more Patricia Highsmith? Come to the Murder in the Afternoon Book Club on Tuesday, October 20, at 2 PM, for a discussion of Highsmith’s great novel of love and obsession, Carol, or, The Price of Salt, soon to be released as a motion picture.