THOMAS HARRIS. The Silence of the Lambs (1988).

20 Sep

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. SilenceLambs.jpgThose 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.”


Posted by on September 20, 2012 in American, Noir, Novel


6 responses to “THOMAS HARRIS. The Silence of the Lambs (1988).

  1. John

    September 21, 2012 at 9:34 AM

    Sometimes I wish Harris never wrote this book. I feel he is solely responsible for the deluge of serial killer novels we are now drowning in. A sad bloodsoaked drowning it is, too, with each new “twist” only showing what secret perversions live in the dark imaginations of writers whose work seems only to exist in order to top one another in terms of the grotesque and the taboo. But I have to concede — SILENCE OF THE LAMBS is a landmark in crime fiction. I think this book and CAT OF MANY TAILS are the only serial killer novels worth reading out of the hundreds (could it be thousands by now?) out there.

  2. Mike

    September 21, 2012 at 10:50 AM

    John, I agree completely with everything that you say—right down to your praise for “Cat of Many Tails” (which remains one of my favorite EQ titles, and one of my favorite all-time detective novels). The rise of the serial killer in crime fiction has truly been a blight on the genre. Indeed, in my darker and wonkier moments, I’m wont to think that the culture-wide shift in focus from the detective-as-hero to the killer-as-anti-hero marks a very troubling social trend. And Harris, by turning out sequels that feature Hannibal Lecter (rather than Clarice Starling) as their “protagonist,” bears a lot of blame on that score. The pleasant surprise for me when I read “Silence,” and the thing that allowed me to finish it and even like it, was that it IS a detective story.

  3. Steve Oerkfitz

    September 21, 2012 at 4:52 PM

    Shane Stevens By Reason of Insanity preceded Silence by a few years and is almost as good as Silence.

  4. Mike

    September 23, 2012 at 8:30 AM

    Steve: Thanks for the comment, and for the recommendation.

  5. G

    November 19, 2012 at 10:55 AM

    Harris was a master of creating the haunting images. Having an absolutely vulnerable but tough female protagonist go up against some severely depraved shit – Moog jerking off, finding the half decomposed head, Hannibal eating the guards face, Starling going up in the dark against Buffalo Bill (who is wearing night vision glasses) , the moth settling on Bill’s back (and she realizing to her horror who he is) all in all it really is a memorable book.

  6. Mike

    November 19, 2012 at 11:57 AM

    “G”: I appreciate your comment. Thanks for the reminder of those classic images from “Silence.” When I read the book, I’d already seen the Jonathan Demme movie, so what struck me most were the points where the book seemed to differ from the movie—as it did, in particular, by showing Clarice to be not just a thriller heroine, but also a true detective. But you’re right: All of the awesome thriller imagery in the movie is there to be seen in the book as well.


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