Sunday, April 19, 2015

Silence of the Lambs re-read


"Imagine a person, tall, lean and feline, high-shouldered, with a brow like Shakespeare and a face like Satan, a close-shaven skull, and long, magnetic eyes of the true cat-green." -- Sax Rohmer, The Mystery of Fu Manchu
"Dr. Lecter's eyes are maroon and they reflect the light in pinpoints of red. Sometimes the points of light seem to fly like sparks to his center." -- Thomas Harris, Silence of the Lambs 

Reading this right after Red Dragon was interesting. There seems to be a quick leap of writing skill for Thomas Harris, but in reality there is almost almost a decade's lag time between novels. Somewhere in there, he's cast out the more imitative parts of his voice and developed a lean yet descriptive style. This is a well-oiled pop novel machine.

And I put this squarely in the pop novel tradition. There's a tendency for Harris to cover larger topics, such as Clarice Starling's career difficulties in a masculine society, but most of the book is dedicated to the movement of plot and the presenting of a certain kind of spectacle. The bits of human relationship are overshadowed by the fantasy of Hannibal Lecter.
"You'v given up good and evil for behaviorism, Officer Starling."
For as much as this is a progressive 1980s novel, it still centers around a feminine, intelligent and demonic presence who chides Clarice Starling for having a modern, post-evil view of the world. Ensconced in his dungeon, Hannibal Lecter is an interesting variation on the Victorian villian, though not the Moriarty aspect, but the Fu Manchu one.

The actual plot of the book revolves around Starling and Jack Crawford's attempts to capture "Buffalo Bill" before he kills the daughter of a U.S. Senator. Upon close reading, it's evident that most of the independent breakthroughs come through luck rather than skill. Everything else comes about through the subtle machinations of Lector's ability to manipulate people and push them into various directions.

He usually accomplishes this by analyzing people and preying on their weaknesses, but our heroine doesn't have any obvious ones, or any that he can amuse himself with. Instead, he pulls out a memory that represents her inner strength, the successful rescue of a beloved horse that was going to be killed for fertilizer. This was accomplished under cover of the bleating of lambs being slaughtered, and so the "Silence" for Clarice won't come until her mission is fulfilled.

This is all quick, pop psychology of course, but it works within the genre, here. A large part of crime novels are always concerned with "how" the serial killer became a monster. In Silence of the Lambs, we have the monster denying any how for himself, yet having the power to see the motivation of heroes and by-standers. A nice, polite figure of Satan for the end of the 20th century.

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