Cari Mora: The Silence of the Lambs author creates brilliant new female heroine
Fiction: Cari Mora
William Heinemann, hardback, 336 pages, €25.99
Thomas Harris hasn't spoken to the media in almost 40 years. The 78-year-old is not a recluse like Harper Lee, JD Salinger or Thomas Pynchon, but when his second novel, Red Dragon, introduced the world to Hannibal Lecter in 1981, a journalist asked him if he wasn't a bit of a psychopath himself and afterwards, he told his agent he'd rather not do any more interviews - though he's not averse to answering emails from fans or having his picture taken with them.
Yet for all his fame, Harris hasn't written very much. Indeed, Cari Mora is his first novel in 13 years and also the first in 44 years that doesn't feature Lecter - his 1975 debut Black Sunday concerned a planned attack on the Superbowl and was adapted for the 1977 John Frankenheimer movie of the same name, starring Bruce Dern as a deranged homegrown terrorist.
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Neither the book nor the movie did particularly well, but Red Dragon, in which Lecter made his entrance, was an instant bestseller and six years later, its follow-up, The Silence of the Lambs, brought Harris both global fame and considerable wealth. Since then, he divides his time, with his long-time partner Pace Barnes, between homes in south Florida and fashionable Sag Harbour in New York. His fame was enhanced when Jonathan Demme's subsequent movie version of The Silence of the Lambs swept the boards at the 1992 Oscars, with Anthony Hopkins' indelible (and much parodied) turn as Lecter capturing everyone's imagination - though Brian Cox had also been a compelling Lecter in Michael Mann's underrated 1986 movie Manhunter, which was adapted from Red Dragon.
Harris went on to write two more Lecter novels, and perhaps it's significant that in both books he opted to foreground the stuff-of-nightmares psychopath rather than his dogged law-and-order pursuers, as had been the case with Will Graham in Red Dragon and with Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs. Lecter had become the guy who fascinated everyone, which Harris was canny enough to recognise.
Yet while Hannibal (1999) was just as gripping as its predecessors, Hannibal Rising (2006) made the mistake of seeking to humanise and explain a character who, in Stephen King's words, had formerly been "the great fictional monster of our time". And this time around, reviews weren't so ecstatic and sales not so phenomenal.
Perhaps with this in mind, Harris has now come up with a thriller in which Lecter is nowhere to be seen, though the terrifying Hans-Peter Schneider could certainly give him a run for his money when it comes to the nightmarish scenarios he dreams up for his victims and the vile acts he perpetrates - including the harvesting of young women's limbs and organs while they're still alive for wealthy clients.
We learn this at the outset, when we're also introduced to 25-year-old Cari Mora from Colombia, who's his latest target. Kidnapped at the age of 12 by FARC guerillas, treated brutally by her captors and taught how to make mortars by "an Irishman", she eventually escaped their clutches and is now keeping a low profile as caretaker of a Miami Beach mansion that once belonged to Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar.
Unknown to her, however, gold bullion worth more than $20m lies buried in the house's foundations, with competing sets of criminals intent on snatching it - and, in the case of Hans-Peter, snatching her as well for his own unspeakable purposes. But they may not have reckoned with Cari's resolve, resourcefulness or survival skills.
That's the basic set-up, which Harris exploits and develops with his customary flair for pacing and his mastery of tension. Stephen King has said of his friend that the act of writing has always been "a kind of torment" for Harris, but you'd never guess it from his books, and this latest is almost insanely readable - unable to put it down, I tore through its 300 pages in a day.
The book's cool laconic tone is something of a departure for Harris, which reminded me of that other American master of crime fiction, the late Elmore Leonard.
Indeed, Leonard's nefarious lowlifes would be right at home in this sun-drenched milieu, while their author would also have admired Cari as a kindred spirit to some of the estimable women he created in his own books - most notably, perhaps, Jackie Burke in Rum Punch, memorably played by Pam Grier in Quentin Tarantino's 1997 film Jackie Brown, the best of all movies adapted from Leonard.
And with the right director and cast, Cari Mora could also be a terrific movie. It's got a fast, lean plot, violent action sequences, a female hero to root for and lots of vividly realised secondary characters, some of whom come to startlingly gruesome ends.
In short, who needs Hannibal Lecter? Not Thomas Harris anyway, who in Cari Mora has escaped the clutches of his most famous creation and done so triumphantly.