Strangers on a Train and The Chameleon’s Shadow

As our local crime fiction book discussion group continues its genre study of crime and mystery fiction, we find ourselves reaching the category of psychological suspense.

In writing Make Mine a Mystery, I proposed the idea that the after effects of war has changed how readers approach death in fiction.  After WWI, my idea is that people may have come to believe that the death of an individual might not have any meaning when so many are killed in senseless battles in trenches.  I would like to think that the creation of detectives who did care about the death of an individual, such as the great thinking detectives in the classic puzzle novels of Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers, may have restored people’s faith.

After the use of atomic weapons in WWII, my theory is that people again began to have doubts about the deaths of individuals.  When so may can be killed so quickly and so impersonally, does the death of an individual matter at all?  A second layer of doubt points back at the persons causing the death:  how could this happen.? In relationship to crime fiction, the question is simply one of why rather than how.

Although arguments could certainly be made for works of fiction by James M. Cain (and I even like to point to The Grapes of Wrath occasionally), I like to use Patricia Highsmith as the benchmark author of psychological suspense.  Her first novel, Strangers on a Train (1950) was the book we read and it fulfills all the requirements of setting the stage for future writers, establishing a crime with psychological underpinnings as the motive, and developing characters who are disturbingly engaging.  The discussion on this title was lively and thorough, taking almost too much time because we had a contemporary novel to discuss this night as well.  (Do not forget to encourage readers to watch the excellent Alfred Hitchcock movie with the same title, even if Hitchcock changed a few things for cinematic reasons).

The basic plot of Strangers on a Train is that an architect named Guy Haines, who is having relationship issues, is traveling by train to confront his wife Miriam in Metcalf, Texas, when he encounters a man named Charles Bruno.  Bruno initiates a conversation that eventually leads to the suggestion that if Charles kills Miriam for Guy, Guy should kill Charles’ father for him.  Sensible people would run.  People in a psychological suspense novel are not sensible.

Our contemporary novel was The Chameleon’s Shadow (2008)by Minette Walters.  Walters has been dazzling our crime book discussion for years as we have been reading one of her novels each semester, including one of my “sure bet” book discussion selections, the totally creepy The Sculptress (1993).

This novel features Lt. Charles Acland, a severely damaged Iraq war veteran who through a series of Jungian synchronicity ends up the focus of a police investigation into the murders of street people.  In discussion these two titles together, it was interesting to see how issues of self-image, sexual relations, sexual orientation, physical illness and overbearing mothers were present in both books.

Minette Walters has twelve novels that are the best psychological suspense written since Cain and Highsmith.  Any of her titles will engage and enrage any book discussion that attempts to discuss them, and The Chameleon’s Shadow was no exception.  Our group stayed overtime to allow all aspects of the two books to be discussed and everyone went home with a better understanding of why the characters behaved the way they did.

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About the Author:

Gary Niebuhr is the author of Make Mine a Mystery (2003), Caught up in Crime (2009), and other readers' guides to mystery and detective fiction. He was a Booklist contributor from 2008-2014.

2 Comments on "Strangers on a Train and The Chameleon’s Shadow"

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  1. ckubala@columbiactlibrary.org' CarolK says:

    I love the psychological aspects of Walters books.
    Have you ever seen the BBC adaptations of these?
    The Ice House
    The Sculptress
    The Scold’s Bridle
    The Dark Room
    The Echo

    They are excellent but only sold for region 2 players and will not play on most US players. Not for the squeamish, they are dark, violent, but done very well with all the psychological detail of the books. I wish they would become available for the US.

  2. gary warren niebuhr says:

    I have seen The Ice House which was OK but I really, really, really loved The Sculptress which I think remained very faithful to the book but also really nailed Walters’ tone.

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