In first novel for 13 years Silence of the Lambs creator Thomas Harris has come up with a brilliant new heroine
Thomas Harris hasn't spoken to the media in almost 40 years.
The 78-year-old is no recluse, but when his second novel, Red Dragon, introduced Hannibal Lecter in 1981, a journalist asked if he wasn't a bit of a psychopath himself and afterwards he told his agent he'd rather not do any more interviews - though he's not averse to answering emails from fans or having his picture taken with them.
Yet, for all his fame, Harris hasn't written very much. Cari Mora is his first novel in 13 years and the first in 44 years that doesn't feature Lecter - his 1975 debut Black Sunday concerned a planned attack on the Superbowl and was adapted for the 1977 movie of the same name.
Neither book nor movie did particularly well, but Red Dragon was an instant bestseller and, six years later, its follow-up, The Silence of the Lambs, brought Harris global fame and wealth. He now divides his time, with his long-time partner Pace Barnes, between homes in south Florida and Sag Harbour in New York.
His fame was enhanced when Jonathan Demme's movie version of The Silence of the Lambs swept the boards at the 1992 Oscars, with Anthony Hopkins's turn as Lecter capturing everyone's imagination. Harris went on to write two more Lecter novels and perhaps it's significant that in both books he opted to foreground the stuff-of-nightmares psychopath rather than his dogged law-and-order pursuers, as had been the case with Will Graham in Red Dragon and with Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs.
Yet, while Hannibal (1999) was as gripping as its predecessors, Hannibal Rising (2006) made the mistake of seeking to humanise a character who, in Stephen King's words, had formerly been "the great fictional monster of our time". Reviews weren't so ecstatic and sales not so phenomenal.
Harris has now come up with a thriller in which Lecter is nowhere to be seen, though the terrifying Hans-Peter Schneider could give him a run for his money when it comes to vile acts - including harvesting young women's limbs and organs while they're alive for wealthy clients.
We learn this at the outset when we're introduced to 25-year-old Cari Mora from Colombia, his latest target. Kidnapped aged 12 by FARC guerillas, treated brutally by her captors and taught to make mortars by 'an Irishman', she escaped and is now caretaker of a Miami mansion that once belonged to drug lord Pablo Escobar.
Unknown to her, gold bullion worth over $20m is buried in the house's foundations, with rival sets of criminals intent on snatching it - and, in the case of Hans-Peter, snatching her too. But they may not have reckoned with Cari's resolve or survival skills. That's the set-up, which Harris develops with his customary flair for pacing and his mastery of tension.
The cool, laconic tone is something of a departure for Harris, which reminded me of that other American master of crime fiction, the late Elmore Leonard. Cari Mora could be a terrific movie.
It's got a fast, lean plot, violent action, a female hero to root for and lots of vivid secondary characters, some of whom have startlingly gruesome ends. Who needs Hannibal Lecter?
In Cari Mora, Thomas Harris has escaped the clutches of his most famous creation - and done so triumphantly.