With Red Dragon (1981) and The Silence of the Lambs (1988), Thomas Harris set the bar for modern suspense writing, drawing on developments in criminal-personality profiling to explore the type that had only recently been designated the “serial” killer. But his numerous followers have had little trouble exceeding his rate of production. During the 1990s, while the field grew crowded with writers meeting annual delivery dates, sufficiently flush with ideas to fuel multiple ongoing series, Harris cut a lonely, exotically Flaubertian figure, shunning the media, his working day spent “writhing on the floor in agonies of frustration” in the phrase of his admirer Stephen King, who published 14 novels in the time it took Harris to produce Hannibal (1999).
After the success of the resulting 2001 film version – produced by Dino De Laurentiis, who had lent Orion Pictures his long-held, though at the time little-cherished rights to the Lecter character for the 1991 adaptation of The Silence of the Lambs – Harris was induced to keep writing not only by the promise of further movie royalties but by De Laurentiis’s threat to continue the Lecter story without his involvement. It’s hard not to view the atrocious prequel, Hannibal Rising (2006), as both a tie-in and an exercise in marking territory. With the Hannibal quartet complete – and giving the writers of a widely revered NBC series plenty to feast on – there was a strong possibility that Harris would make a retreat into total silence.
It’s possibly ungrateful to note that the barely 300 pages of Harris’s new novel contain a fair bit of blank space, and that agonised perfectionism isn’t greatly in evidence. At one point, Harris alludes to the common misuse of the verb “decimate”, despite his own prose being characterised by odd lapses in grammar and sense (the opening line of dialogue runs, “I can get the house where you say it is”). But Cari Mora, for its brevity and blemishes, is a tense heist thriller, plausibly grounded in coastal Florida and urban Colombia, and told through half-a-dozen points of view. It is a welcome departure from his narrow and numbing obsession with Lecter that still manages to provide some of the thrills and types desired from this long-awaited return. And it’s a novel that deserves a higher accolade – praise less inaudibly faint – than “Harris’s best since The Silence of the Lambs”.
The book’s title character is a 25-year-old female immigrant, a former child soldier from Colombia, who works as the housekeeper of a Miami Bay mansion filled with bric-a-brac. Also on the premises is a booby-trapped cache of gold bricks deposited in 1989 by the drug baron Pablo Escobar. One of Escobar’s former associates sells his knowledge of the gold, though not exclusively, to the notorious Hans-Peter Schneider, a mercenary and pimp with an organ-selling sideline, who rents the house and begins digging.
The novel’s set-up (long-concealed booty, rival gangs, sun-kissed Florida) recalls Elmore Leonard’s 1990s work, or a conflation of the two noir films that John Huston made in 1948 – the action of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre shifted to the backdrop of Key Largo. But Harris’s juggling of narrative perspectives – his God’s-eye view of human delusion – and preoccupation with motives darker and murkier than the lining of pockets tips the novel away from the crime genre and closer to the terrain of Joseph Conrad and his portraits of émigré communities in watery locales, especially Nostromo, his story of the scramble for silver in a rejigged Colombia.
The character of Hans-Peter Schneider is crucial to the book’s nihilist undertone and its appeal to existing fans. Cari Mora is Harris’s first novel in almost half a century – since Black Sunday in 1975 – not to feature “Hannibal the Cannibal”, and his publishers have emphasised Schneider’s status as the successor. But this “new monster” is really the old monster with a few tweaks, and the same dynamic characterises his new heroine as well.
Hans-Peter Schneider and Cari Mora have more in common with Hannibal Lecter and Clarice Starling, the heroine of The Silence of the Lambs, than the syllabic make-up of their names. Cari Mora, for all its other accents, is also the story of an erudite European monster (German as opposed to Lithuanian) with a taste for human flesh (more a sadistic necrophile than a connoisseur) who meets his match in a 25-year-old orphan fond of animals and good with guns.
On this showing, Schneider seems unlikely to emulate Lecter’s journey to global fame. He’s in every way a less rarefied proposition. Whereas Lecter plays the Goldberg Variations on an 18th-century Flemish harpsichord, Schneider sings the German folk songs that the Variations incorporate while in the shower. A powerful sense of smell, a marker of Lecter’s subtlety, is here explained by Schneider’s hairlessness, which extends even to his nasal pathways.Lecter courteously assures Clarice that, unlike his foul-mouthed neighbour Multiple Miggs, he cannot smell her “c***” – only her skin cream and perfume – but Schneider is “susceptible to… the pollens of spiny amaranth and rape”, and his interest in Cari is altogether less psychological or cerebral (he imagines her “asleep in her hotness upstairs”). And while Lecter was “impenetrable”, recognised even by Dr Chilton, the churlish administrator of the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, as “much too sophisticated for the standard tests”, Schneider is instantly redolent of “brimstone” and flatly characterised as “a very bad man”, “crazy in a bad way” and, simply, “mad for it”. Lecter pursued a career as a clinical psychiatrist with society connections before he was caught by the uncannily perceptive Will Graham, an incident recalled at the start of Red Dragon. Schneider couldn’t even fake his way through medical school without getting expelled “on moral grounds”.
But perhaps Schneider’s comparative mediocrity is intentional, and Cari Mora isn’t a retread, however partial, of Harris’s greatest hits but a recantation of his worst excesses. The Hannibal saga ended with Clarice and Lecter living together, the kinship of hunter and hunted that Harris had done so much to introduce as a thriller trope taken to its logical – yet ridiculous – conclusion. Here, the heroine maintains her sanity, and the authorial fascination that bordered on worship is replaced by a more appropriate sense of detachment.
Other things that may have tired or repelled Harris readers have also been scaled back. The highfalutin literary stuff is gone. (He somehow gets by without a single epigraph.) And the wings of William Blake’s red dragon and of the sphinx moth – the killer’s calling-card in The Silence of the Lambs – are replaced, in the new novel’s quieter iconography, by the in-folded coat-tails worn by the Virgin in the Marian image known as the Caridad del Cobre.
As this change suggests, the novel carries a new note of hope or consolation. Cari Mora’s history of damage doesn’t simply make her good at relating to killers. It furnishes her with a strong positive vision, based on principles of nurture. And there’s even a sensory dimension that isn’t geared solely towards provoking disgust. Along with the spilling innards and disembodied heads – this is still Thomas Harris – is an emphasis on the splendours of the Florida coast, where Harris, now 78, lives with his partner, the former publisher Pace Barnes. Brimstone is jostled by jasmine, melodrama by pastoral, and the “dark angels” of Hans-Peter Schneider’s nature offset by the coming of “daylight” with which the novel ends.
William Heinemann, 336pp, £20