Review: Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris

4 out of 5 stars

This is the 2nd time I’ve read this, but the last time was shortly after the movie came out. So… that’s about 20 years. It’s amazing how well the book, like the movie, stands up.

The focus in this book is a new serial killer, a new agent (well, trainee), but the background folks are the same as Red Dragon. Jack Crawford, the Behavioral Sciences guru, Alan Bloom, the only one who really has his head on straight amongst all the politics of the FBI, the way the police and political figures whore themselves out to the media and use it to alter public perception. We revisit Dr. Chilton, greasily ensconced in the Baltimore Asylum for the Criminally insane. And of course, Hannibal Lecter, also in the asylum, in his dungeon cell, behind bars and netting, the only input he receives and the only way to communicate with him is a sliding food tray. And don’t forget to stay behind the yellow line.

This book does a much better job with the background characters than Red Dragon. I couldn’t keep anyone straight in that book. But now we have John Brigham, the “head gunny” at Quantico, the firearms instructor, who clearly sees something in our main character, Clarice Starling. There are two eccentric students at the Smithsonian who help with insect identification. Ardelia Mapp, Starlings roommate and friend at the academy. Even the weird funeral director/coroner stuck with me. They all felt like people and had character traits – not just names and jobs, like the last book. It made this one more enjoyable to read.

The main story is of course, serial killer Buffalo Bill. His victims wind up floating in water, all heavy girls, parts of their bodies skinned. Water does a great job of removing all tangible evidence, and there have been six bodies so far. The police tagged him Buffalo Bill because “He likes to skin his humps.” Possibly one of the most chilling lines in any mystery/detective/thriller novel, ever. He strikes randomly, and he dumps randomly. And the FBI hasn’t got a single lead.

In desperation, Jack Crawford decides to consult Lecter again, but this time, in a roundabout way. He pegs Clarice Starling, a talented trainee to approach Lecter with a questionnaire, nothing at all to do with any current FBI investigations. He is intrigued by her good bag and her cheap shoes and he sees inside her head as if her skin were transparent. Interestingly enough, what Hannibal wants to talk about is what Jack Crawford wants to know. He’s fascinated by Bill. He gives her a roundabout hint about finding some evidence that will further her career.

Lecter is fascinating, creepy, eccentric, and cruel. Starling is ambitious, ballsy and has something to prove. I really loved her- I think book-Starling kicks movie-Starling’s ass (more on that later). She’s not tentative, overwrought or weak-kneed in any way. She stands up to misogynist cops, Lecter himself and the brass who want to push her back down off the ladder Crawford has started her climbing. She sees the body of her first victim and instantly connects. She sees this poor fat dead girl with pity (and that is how she sees her, she repeats it again and again), with her glitter polish and her multiple ear piercings, not unlike Clarice having to scramble money to have a good bag to be seen in, even if her shoes are knockoffs. When another girl is taken, Catherine, the daughter of a powerful senator, the clock starts to tick and agencies begin to scramble. The Senator thinks pushing her influence and flexing her political muscle will get her results, but she doesn’t know Lecter and she disregards the advice of people that do.

This followed the same formula as the last. We start very police procedural with a few bits of the serial killer in his house. But then about halfway through, we switch gears and spend a lot of time with him and the “material” he is keeping in the basement. He completely dehumanizes his victims. It’s a touchy subject, as the perpetrator of these crimes is passing himself off as a transexual. Harris’’s books stand up to a modern reading because though he has sexist, transphobic, homophobic characters, the books themselves are not those things. Jame Gumb, the villain, is not a true transexual. He has mommy issues, and is obsessed with transformation rather than a true transexual. I didn’t feel like his history or the reasons for his crimes were as well explained or understandable as Francis Dolorhyde ,who was clearly some kind of delusional psychopath, believing he was transforming himself into a dragon with his killings, whereas Gumb is a violent psychopath with a history of meaningless killings before his current string. But Gumb and his house are terrifying – and there is so much more to his horrible basement than was shown in the movie. (Remember the bathtub?)

This is another where you can’t disconnect the book from the famous movie (or at least I don’t think you really can – so many people read the book because of the movie.) There are little differences – the most touching is the story that gives the book its name. I think the story in the book is better than the image of Clarice running off with a little lamb. Let’s just say they had more than lambs on that farm she was sent to. Don’t get me wrong, I love Jodi Foster, she’s my girl. I admire her so much as an actor/director/feminist and her interpretation of Clarice was amazing – but in the movie, Clarice is kinda weak, though I hate to use that term, maybe I should say less hard-nosed, more vulnerable. In the books, of course Clarice has flaws and weaknesses but she hides that stuff, tamps it way down. Obviously, a movie is different and has to cater to audiences, and you want people to connect with your main character. Lecter is more direct and crude in the books. He enjoys riling people up and he’s not at all subtle about it, nothing like the series, with Mads Mikkelson’s polite and insightful revelations. I can’t see Mikkelson or Hopkins saying ‘He’s making a vest with tits.” And there are no anagrams in the book, Lecter uses other ways to miscommunicate. The movie did perfect the “discovery process” – things that were big reveals in the movie were matter of fact in the book. Until the end, when Clarice discovered it again and it was like CAPSLOCK DISCOVERY!! Well, we knew this already. Why the capslock?

All in all, this is just an amazing book. You don’t have to have read the first one, but it’s so worth it. I’m going on to the next, despite the terrible reviews.

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