His Hannibal Lecter and Clarice Starling novels have sold more than 30m copies and made it impossible for anyone to serve fava beans and Chianti unironically, so you have to wonder, on picking up Cari Mora – his first novel in 13 years and the first since 1975 not to feature Lecter – why, at the age of 78, he would choose to produce such a pale imitation of his own greatest success?... And yet, the book contains the ghost of a different, far more interesting story that might have existed. Harris – who comes across in rare interviews as a thoroughly nice man (like his heroine, he volunteers at a seabird rescue centre) – recently said that he set the book in his home town of Miami because he wanted to write about the lives of immigrants and refugees who come in search of a new life. There’s a section of flashback to Cari’s formative years in Farc; though short, these chapters achieve a vitality and conviction that the rest of the novel, with its cartoonish gangsters, noticeably fails to match.
I desperately wanted this novel to be better and to applaud Harris as he exited on a high note. Cari Mora is rarely dull, because the sensibility of its creator is too atypical for that, but it is careless and underwritten. The shallowness of its characterisation means that its violence comes across as simple sadism: bloodthirstiness for its own sake, a series of brutal, if comic, tableaux for the masses. In Hannibal, Lecter attends an exhibition of Atrocious Torture Instruments, but he gazes at the spectators, not the exhibits. “Elemental Ugliness is found in the faces of the crowd,” the narrator – Harris in all but name – remarks.
It’s no accident that the Teutonic villain is almost the only non-Latino person in the novel, as Harris intends it (he tells us in an afterword) as a celebration of Miami and, topically, those of its citizens “who came from somewhere else, often on foot”. While this pro-immigrant stance might be laudable, it doesn’t fit well with a set-up that requires most of these myriad Latino characters to be either actual crooks, or benefiting from illegality and mayhem, or turning a blind eye to them. If celebrating a particular ethnic community is your aim, crime fiction might not be the best genre to go for.
If the characters of Cari and Schneider are a little wanting, the novel generally is a tantalising and engaging read. Subplots are effective and minor characters are involving, although many do not reach the end of the book. And Harris has not lost his touch for evil on a grand scale.
The more Thomas Harris has written about Hannibal Lecter, the more the character has lost his distinctive flavour – not an apt fate for a cannibal. So it is probably for the best that in his new novel, his first for 13 years, Harris has headed in a new direction, with his first Lecter-free book since his debut, Black Sunday (1975)... Harris doesn’t have Elmore Leonard’s gift of enabling his characters to talk their way into three dimensions: more memorable than his dialogue is his agreeably pawky omniscient narrative voice, prone to wry observations (he has a cheek, though, for complaining about newscasters’ misuse of the word “decimating” when he gets “disinterested” wrong). By and large, his prose is a pleasure to read, written with gusto and often real wit. But the characters are pretty forgettable, apart from a German baddie chiefly notable for embodying so many national stereotypes that he reads as if created by Basil Fawlty after his head injury... Skim the solemn bits: the pleasure one takes in this novel is in watching Harris unwind, have some fun and (to give him the benefit of the doubt) send himself up a bit.
The good news for readers of Cari Mora is that Hannibal is here in spirit if not in person. This is a very peculiar book, lavishly ridiculous in almost every respect and fully committed to the gothic extremes of human cruelty: just camp enough to skirt charges of outright porno-sadism.
Sounds like fun, right? Well, it is. But, as I say, it’s also mad as a badger. The way I found myself describing it to a friend is as Dr Fischer of Geneva retold by Carl Hiaasen and shot by Tobe Hooper. A character with a walk-on part eats a human kidney, for instance, just because it’s there. There are decapitations, multiple dismemberments and brains dripping off ceilings. Also, a certain amount of lyrical stuff about manatees and seabirds, and some comic business with a foul-mouthed cockatoo.
Eschewing the complex character-building of his earlier work, Harris delivers a narrative that is absolutely cut to the bone, and while Cari is a distinctive heroine, we are not invited to care about her to the extent that we became involved with Clarice.... Lecter, with his love of Renaissance art and haute cuisine, is a hard act to follow. Although Schneider is more than credible as a threat, one is left with the feeling that Harris is conserving his energy — Cari Mora is not as ambitious as any of the books in the author’s earlier sequence. And, Harris, we really do need to know if Clarice ever escapes from the clutches of Hannibal Lecter.
It’s possibly ungrateful to note that the barely 300 pages of Harris’s new novel contain a fair bit of blank space, and that agonised perfectionism isn’t greatly in evidence. At one point, Harris alludes to the common misuse of the verb “decimate”, despite his own prose being characterised by odd lapses in grammar and sense (the opening line of dialogue runs, “I can get the house where you say it is”). But Cari Mora, for its brevity and blemishes, is a tense heist thriller, plausibly grounded in coastal Florida and urban Colombia, and told through half-a-dozen points of view. It is a welcome departure from his narrow and numbing obsession with Lecter that still manages to provide some of the thrills and types desired from this long-awaited return. And it’s a novel that deserves a higher accolade – praise less inaudibly faint – than “Harris’s best since The Silence of the Lambs”.
Harris’s previous monsters, Francis Dolarhyde, Jame Gumb and even Mason Verger, have been dynamic creations with powerful backstories. Schneider, however, arrives so completely repellent as to be unconvincing... This time Harris fails to build the suspense and dread of his masterpieces. These two main characters are on the one hand too good and on the other too evil to resonate with one another or the reader. That failure leaves us, nonetheless, with an expertly delivered and fast-paced thriller, full of distinctively Harrisian inflections... Although it adds little to Harris’s stature, Cari Mora is still a fierce read. So far from his novels fading for me over the years, I have re-read them frequently (especially enjoying Harris’s own intensely Southern readings of them) and always only thought better of them, even Hannibal.
Harris is liveliest when he’s furthest from straight thriller writing. In the descriptions of Miami’s ecology, Cari Mora ascends fleetingly to the level of diverting, and Cari Mora’s backstory, based on real-life case studies of children in combat, delivers some relatively vivid passages. The worst of the novel is the violence. Not because it’s notably unpleasant, but because it’s empty. Without a driving plot or memorable characters to give them weight, the death scenes are just ketchup sprayed on the page. The real three-pipe problem here is what happened to Harris – and his publisher.
This time Harris fails to build the suspense and dread of his masterpieces. These two main characters are on the one hand too good and on the other too evil to resonate with one another or the reader. That failure leaves us, nonetheless, with an expertly delivered and fast-paced thriller, full of distinctively Harrisian inflections... So here is that utterly distinctive imaginative world again, operating though at a lower level of creativity than in his best work, so often the outcome of late endeavour
Thomas Harris is a supreme thriller writer — for not only does he create memorable and monstrous villains, but he also gives us formidable female protagonists...Violent, brutal and action-packed, yet told with Harris’s typical wry wit, it crackles from first page to last.