Thomas Harris's "The Silence of the Lambs," a bone-chilling thriller, was an immediate hit upon its 1988 publication. Now, more than twenty years later, most of us inevitably approach, or reapproach, it knowing something about it; with the famous movie based on it firmly in mind. Yet, I, at least, had to fight off the temptation to stay up all night to finish it, although I surely knew where it was going.
Harris, to be sure, writes a great, tense story of suspense. He'd already published Black Sunday
, and Red Dragon
, where we were first introduced to Dr. Hannibal Lector. LAMBS' story, we know, concerns the efforts of the Federal Bureau of Investigations to catch a serial killer nicknamed Buffalo Bill. The agency sends trainee Clarice Starling to interview Dr. Hannibal Lector, former psychiatrist, imprisoned in a Baltimore insane asylum, after having been found guilty of nine sadistic, cannibalistic murders. Lector has unusual tastes, and intense curiosity about the darker side of the mind. The formerly eminent medical man's understanding of himself, Starling, and the killer forms the core of the book.
LAMBS benefits from a complex, multi-layered plot. As it proceeds, we realize that Lector knew all along where it had to lead. The author's timing is impeccable: he hits his high notes, then gives us a moment to unwind. We hardly dare breathe during the Lector/Starling Tennessee scenes -- we're waiting with dread for what we know will come; when it does, it's overwhelming. The plot's also titillating, let's be honest about it, sex change operations and all. Furthermore, serial killers were new to us then; the genre is still remarkably popular, judging by the countless rip-offs of it since. Finally, a lot of the story deals with gruesome material, but the forensics are still fresh, and it's always leavened by the author's black humor.
Harris created two of the most memorable characters in modern fiction in Lector and Starling. The author has an acute ear for dialogue: who doesn't believe the Lector/Starling duets? At another point, Harris has Barney, sole knowledgeable orderly in the mental hospital where Lector has been held, say to Starling," Listen, when you get Buffalo Bill -- don't bring him to me just because I got a vacancy, all right?"
The writer's eye and ear serve him well. He describes a character's car as "a black Buick with a De Paul University sticker on the back window. His weight gave the Buick a slight list to the left." He describes Clarice's thoughts: "Sometimes Crawford's (her boss's) tone reminded Starling of the know-it-all caterpillar in Lewis Carroll." Early in the book, he has Starling driving back to FBI headquarters at Quantico, "back to Behavioral Sciences, with its homey brown-checked curtains and its gray files full of hell. She sat there into the evening, after the last secretary had left, cranking through the Lector microfilm. The contrary old viewer glowed like a jack-o'-lantern in the darkened room...." Sorry, but ya just gotta read the book to get this stuff.