Fresh faced FBI recruit Clarice Starling is looking to prove herself. When a seemingly perfect opportunity to do so lands in her lap she jumps at the chance – all she has to do is travel up state to a mental institution and interview one of the patients. A profile on this particular criminal could help in the bureau’s current ‘problem’ case: an elusive killer dubbed ‘Buffalo Bill’ who has the disturbing habit of skinning the bodies of his female victims. It’s the perfect opportunity for the ambitious Starling. However, the patient she has been sent to interview is the notorious Dr Hannibal Lecter, a former psychiatrist and cannibalistic serial killer. Lecter engages Starling in a mind-bending game of ‘quid pro quo’: he will give her the information she desires on Buffalo Bill if she provides him with more interesting information – on herself. With time running out and the body count racking up, how far will Starling go to get the information she needs, and just how dangerous is it to let the murderous Lecter ‘under her skin’?
Harris’s novel is inevitably one about the mind. Lecter, who it would not be exaggerating to call one of the most devious literary villains, is capable of getting into the mind of any who confront him; he knows how to read people and with that power he knows how to hurt. His relationship with Starling, despite rocky beginnings (‘do you know what you look like to me with your good bag and cheap shoes? You look like a rube.’), is intriguing. The more she opens up to him, about her childhood and ambitions, the more tender he grows towards her – but it is a relationship grown on psychological grounds, and the more she confides in Lecter the weaker she finds her mental hold. Starling herself is an interesting character; she is set up as vaguely feminist, a lone woman who has to stand against almost a deluge of male hostility throughout the course of the novel, from Lecter to the head of staff in the asylum, her colleagues, right down to her terrifying confrontation with Buffalo Bill himself. Starling is the damsel-not-quite-in-distress, caught between a battle for her career and a battle for her mind.
Silence of the Lambs is notorious in itself; made famous by the 1991 film version and Antony Hopkin’s alluring portrayal of Lecter, but author Thomas Harris himself remains something of a mystery. Whether you’ve read the book first or seen the film, the two play out as almost mirror images: both draw their audience quickly into the action, both have that coppery scent of gothic imagery about them, and both delight in inspiring a major case of the creeps. There are whole paragraphs cribbed from page to screen which some readers may find repetitive, but, in a way, the duality of the novel and its movie counterpart can impart a grudging respect for Harris as a writer, as the reader becomes aware of just how cinematic his writing is. Each sound, quirk or movement his character makes comes alive before their very eyes, making for a novel that is almost impossible to put down. Harris has an unusually crisp writing style that makes for an absorbing story, and he remains one of the few authors with a background in criminology whose novel isn’t bogged down by facts and figures as a result. On the whole he creates a dynamic tale and his characterisation is some of the best in literature to date; neatly woven yet absorbing, his characters are uncommonly easy to believe in, and that’s what makes Silence of the Lambs so downright disturbing.
Best scene: Lecter’s haunting (and somewhat hilarious) entrance: ‘A census taker tried to quantify me once. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a big Amarone.’
Best line: ‘You still wake up sometimes don’t you? Wake up in the iron dark with the lambs screaming?’
Read this if you liked: Clockwork Orange, Red Dragon, Se7en.