This year I picked up Thomas Harris’ The Silence of the Lambs as my Halloween read, but I ended up being so busy working the whole week that it went a little long. I watched the film once in high school, but most of the details didn’t stick, so almost everything in the novel seemed new and surprising to me.
About the book: FBI agent Jack Crawford is hunting a serial killer that takes his victims’ skin. It’s taking a lot of time and effort from the FBI, but help comes from an unexpected source. Clarice Starling, FBI trainee at Quantico, is pulled aside to make a routine call on Dr. Hannibal Lecter. She’s not the first to be sent to him for answers about his crimes, and no one expects much from the visit. She’s supposed to be able to say she went, she spoke, she wrote up the report on the likely one-sided conversation. Except Dr. Lecter, nick-named Hannibal the Cannibal, former psychiatrist and evil manipulator of the human psyche, does have something to say to Clarice. He tells her something about the serial killer Crawford is hunting. When it becomes clear that Dr. Lecter knows who the killer is and the FBI doesn’t, Clarice’s involvement with Lecter and the current case increase, just as things begin to spiral out of control…
“Starling put her head back, closed her eyes for one second. Problem-solving is hunting; it is savage pleasure and we are born to it.”
About the format: the narration is third person omniscient, although it most often follows Clarice Starling. She is the link between Lecter and his vast knowledge of humankind, and Jack Crawford with the power of the FBI behind him. There are, however, several chapters dedicated to Crawford’s life, to Lecter’s, and even to Buffalo Bill’s skin-seeking endeavors, as well as his latest victim. These sporadic changes of pace keep Clarice’s search from becoming dull.
The Silence of the Lambs is a fantastic mystery. It’s weird enough to capture the reader’s attention, technical enough not to be dismissed as overly fictional, and bold enough that the reader never knows what’s coming next. Unless you remember the film, of course. Harris uses an exquisite level of detail, some for characterization, and some to lay the groundwork for plot twists ahead. There’s enough of both that the plot twists remain unpredictable and the characters feel real and sympathetic. Everything is a clue– whether it’s a clue as to how someone will act, or a clue for catching the killer.
The only things that felt odd to me in this novel were the author’s continual use of full names long after the reader had a solid grasp on the main characters. Jack Crawford is almost always Jack Crawford, rarely Crawford and even more rarely Jack. Clarice Starling is occasionally Starling, but the narration always introduces her fresh in each chapter as Clarice Starling. Dr. Hannibal Lecter gets his professional title as well as both first and last names. This one, at least, remains intriguing because it reminds the reader that Lecter is both a frightening criminal and a renowned intellectual. He’s evil, but the reader can’t help rooting for him a little. And then there’s Buffalo Bill, who has several names, some more real than others. But this is only a minor detail, and at least the reader can be assured of never forgetting who is who, or which character is being observed at any given moment. The only other small detail that bothered me was the sentence fragments at the beginnings of the chapters. Harris uses these often to set the scene, but then moves back into full sentences as he goes back to plotting and characterization. His full sentences are so well-crafted that the fragments confused me almost every time, leaving me wondering where the other half of the sentence was hiding. Again, this is a small detail, a stylistic choice that doesn’t affect the story greatly.
On the other hand, I’d like to talk about my favorite aspect of the novel: the technical descriptions. The level of detail about the moths, the prison cells, the motives and methods for removing human skin, the workings of the FBI, Crawford’s medical care for his wife, the appearance of the body of one of Buffalo Bill’s victims. Harris certainly knows what he’s talking about, and by providing so much detail beyond the bare minimum that the reader needs to understand the basic workings of the plot, he gives this novel such a sense of reality. And reality, of course, is what makes a horror book so terrifying. Anything can happen in a book, but it’s the fear that there really are deranged humans out there who might kill for skin that keeps the reader gripped in the tale. Harris doesn’t let the threat of death carry the story– so many stories involve death. There’s something about the human body being harvested for its materials, regardless of who is inside the skin, that Harris conveys to the reader and persuades him/her to be frightened of. It comes off as way more than a plot device because through the details we see Buffalo Bill as a person, as much as anyone can; we see his obsession with moths, his love for his poodle, his longing for his mother. “The devil is in the details,” they say. And yes, he is.
“You’ll have to earn it again and again, the blessed silence. Because it’s the plight that drives you, seeing the plight, and the plight will not end, ever.”
My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. This is quite possibly the best mystery/detective book I have ever read. I need to read more Thomas Harris, particularly the original trilogy about Hannibal Lecter. The Silence of the Lambs is actually the second book in the series, so I think I’m going to go back and read book one. Lecter is highly intriguing as a villain, made all the more complicated by the fact that he’s not always a villain in The Silence of the Lambs. I’m eager to learn more about him.
- Robert Galbraith’s The Silkworm, book two of the Cormoran Strike trilogy. I enjoyed all three of the books in this detective/murder series, but I found book two particularly grisly and horrifying in a way that Thomas Harris fans may appreciate. Book three, Career of Evil, may also be of interest as it delves into the mind of the mysterious killer.
- If you’re looking for less detective work and a little more straightforward horror, try Stephen King’s Bag of Bones. I know Halloween has passed now, but it’s never too early to start planning for next year, and this ghost/haunted house story is a perfect fit for any time of the year that you’re looking for a scare.
Coming up next: I’m currently reading one of my reading challenge books, Marguerite Duras’ The Lover. It’s a romance between a young French woman and an older Chinese man (it’s no Lolita though), and it touches on some beautiful and devastating facets of impossible dreams and unchangeable fates. It’s really short, so I hope to have more details for you in a review coming soon.
The Literary ELephant