Deep Outside SFFH - Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror

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Thomas Harris
Delacorte Press, hardback
484 pages
Publication date, June 8, 1999

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As Stephen King points out in his recent laudatory review of HANNIBAL, it's not as if it's hard to read the entire Harris oeuvre; after all, the man has written only four novels. BLACK SUNDAY, the tale of a deranged man's attempt to kill a stadium full of Super Bowl attendees; RED DRAGON, a remarkable thriller in which Hannibal Lecter is introduced; THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, which first pits Lecter against fledgling FBI agent Clarice Starling (fledgling? Starling? Tell me that isn't a sly Harris joke) is introduced—and this latest one, in which Lecter and Starling return one last (?) time.

Some people tend to read an author in big gulps. You can't do that with Harris, who has taken a minimum of five years to deliver each novel. The gap between SILENCE and HANNIBAL was twice that, in fact. Harris has a huge body of expectation to live up to, given the success of LAMBS. It's a little difficult to review a book in that sort of atmosphere, even though Harris never let hype build up around him the way George Lucas has done with THE PHANTOM MENACE. Yes, SILENCE OF THE LAMBS is a hard act to follow, but after all these Harris has done it.

I would say it was worth the wait.

Seven years after LAMBS ends, Dr. Hannibal Lecter is still on the loose, and Clarice Starling's career is stalled after a promising start. It's made clear that Clarice's problems are not entirely of her own making, but as the novel opens she is being scapegoated for a botched drug factory raid. Her career is on a downturn, and her section’s failure to find Lecter after so many years doesn't help.

Even her former boss, Jack Crawford, is losing it—grown older and tired and still missing the wife who died in LAMBS, Crawford seems ineffectual and distracted. He is out of the loop, as one of the characters says, rather contemptuously. In other words, Clarice Starling no longer has a powerful mentor to assist her.

Meanwhile, one of Hannibal Lecter's former victims, Mason Verger, has been plotting the Good Doctor’s demise. Verger, an extremely wealthy sadist who—along with his body-building sister, Margot—was a patient of Lecter's. Lecter drugged him and convinced him to slice off his face with a piece of broken glass.

Now, years later, the hideous Verger lies paralyzed (Lecter broke his neck after Verger cut off his face) in a respirator, at the center of a web of international intrigue. All he cares about is capturing Lecter and torturing him to death.

Lecter has fled to Europe, where police efforts are slowly but surely ferreting him out. And Starling has decided that she has to get inside the monster's mind in order to trace him herself. She doesn't want him killed—she wants him available for study.


Harris slides some sly, grotesque humor into this book—for example, two of Starling's drug-bust team are named Burke and Hare. And there's a dinner sequence toward the end that put me in mind of a certain banquet scene in INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM. Lecter is a better cook, though.

Harris's characters may suffer a little this time from the incredible success of the film version of SILENCE OF THE LAMBS. I couldn't get Jodie Foster's voice out of my mind when reading Starling’s dialog in this book. (It was easier to banish the specter of Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter.) (Humor! Ar ar!) And it does seem a little as if he deliberately used some extremely gory scenes and at least one horrifically mutilated character in order to make would-be movie producers yank at their hair and scream, "How the hell’re we gonna film this?" No matter—this isn't a film, it's a book. As a book, as a thriller, it works quite well. Harris has assembled a large cast, yet he manages to keep them all distinct. Several characters from THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS put in more or less brief appearances, with the largest cameo going to Barney, the husky black LPN who tended Lecter in the basement of the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane in LAMBS. Barney is among the many people whom Mason Verger mines for information as his noose draws ever tighter around Lecter.

Without giving anything away, I think I can say that the last ten or fifteen pages of this novel are remarkable. You can't see the end coming. It is certainly shocking—it is also touching, oddly tender in its way, and disturbing. It's hard to see how the conclusion can avoid infuriating and outraging some people while impelling others to ridicule and excoriation.

On the other hand, as Thomas says outright in this book, we may be so jaded with all the murder and bloodletting that it will take an ever bigger affront to our atrophied sense of morality to jolt us out of our complacency. He effectively underscores this point by showing us how Barney has been making money on the side by selling Lecter "memorabilia," including the famous protective face mask, still crusted with Lecter’s saliva.

Maybe we're the ones who need the mask.


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