Clarice Starling, as her last name implies, is a neophyte destined for high accomplishment. When we first meet her, she’s a mere trainee at the FBI Academy in Quantico. But then a senior agent taps her to star in the investigation of a major serial-killer case. Her first name is equally suggestive. It indicates, ever so subtly, that Starling hails from a social class that is long on aspiration and short on status. She’s a hillbilly who has made good, at least so far, and the energies of ambition and resentment that arise from her class position give her a hard, endearingly human edge. Those energies also infuse this well-managed literate thriller with an unusually keen sense of urgency. We want our heroine to catch “Buffalo Bill”—a fiend who kidnaps and kills women so that he can harvest their skin—not simply for the sake of justice, but also for the sake of her career. When Starling confronts Hannibal Lecter, a notorious murderer who now languishes behind bars, we root for her all the more because of the elitist air that suffuses every syllable that he utters. (Here again, the name is telling: Hannibal both rhymes with “cannibal” and recalls the African general who sought to conquer Rome, the seat of ancient civilization. And Lecter, meaning “reader,” connotes high-culture pretensions. This Lecter, in short, is part beast and part would-be god; he has forfeited his humanity.) In Lecter’s mind, she will find a map of depravity that will leader to Buffalo Bill. But first she must hold her own as he plays a series of games with her mind.
Harris, in Silence, has produced a minor masterpiece by honoring both sides of the “literate thriller” equation. Voluminous research, on subjects ranging from entomology to penology, leaves its trace on every page, and shrewd psychological insight lurks within every scene. Yet Harris doesn’t shy away from gleefully, and sometimes gratuitously, exploring the more lurid elements of the thriller genre. Unlike most thrillers, meanwhile, this one pays due regard to the core function of its detective hero—which is, of course, to detect. Clarice Starling rises above her backgound through work, and the focus of her work is the pursuit of knowledge. In one fine passage, Harris celebrates that pursuit: “The idea swam away and circled and came again, came close enough for her to grab it this time and she did with a fierce pulse of joy. … Starling put her head back, closed her eyes for a second. Problem-solving is hunting; it is savage pleasure and we are born to it.”