Thomas Harris will be remembered for creating the most famous pairing of evil genius serial killer and strong female nemesis in literary and cinematic history. His Hannibal Lecter and Clarice Starling novels have sold more than 30m copies and made it impossible for anyone to serve fava beans and Chianti unironically, so you have to wonder, on picking up Cari Mora – his first novel in 13 years and the first since 1975 not to feature Lecter – why, at the age of 78, he would choose to produce such a pale imitation of his own greatest success?
Cari Mora is a young Colombian refugee of uncertain immigration status, her beauty flawed only by the scars that testify to her years as a child soldier. She is the only person brave enough to work as a caretaker at the creepy old mansion once owned by cartel boss Pablo Escobar, now empty and filled with macabre props from movies made there over the years: an early electric chair, monster mannequins and “sex furniture”. As her evil genius nemesis Hans-Peter Schneider observes: “The things in the house, the horror movie props, do not scare you, Cari. And why is that? You see they are only the imaginings of mall rats to scare other mall rats, don’t you?”
Schneider, a sort of pound-shop Lecter without the wit, is interested in Cari initially because of Escobar’s house; it’s rumoured that $27m of cartel gold is buried beneath it, in a booby-trapped safe. Schneider is marked out, like all paint-by-numbers villains, by a physical abnormality: he has no body hair. “You first see him, you are sad he could be ill,” says one character. “When you know him, he looks like a dick wearing glasses.”
Schneider’s business is trafficking women, first amputating whatever body parts suit his clients’ fetish; in his downtime, he likes to watch women dissolving in a liquid cremation machine while he takes a shower. “If a girl did not work out, Hans-Peter could just pour her down the loo in liquid form – and with no harmful effect on the groundwater.”
The novel seems permanently balanced on this edge between menace and black comedy, meaning it never quite achieves either. The plot, such as it is, revolves around Schneider racing against a Colombian crime syndicate to open the safe, with predictably grisly deaths of interchangeable henchmen on both sides. At the same time, Schneider also has his sights on Cari, “asleep in her hotness upstairs”, which, surprisingly, is not even the worst sentence in the novel.
And yet, the book contains the ghost of a different, far more interesting story that might have existed. Harris – who comes across in rare interviews as a thoroughly nice man (like his heroine, he volunteers at a seabird rescue centre) – recently said that he set the book in his home town of Miami because he wanted to write about the lives of immigrants and refugees who come in search of a new life. There’s a section of flashback to Cari’s formative years in Farc; though short, these chapters achieve a vitality and conviction that the rest of the novel, with its cartoonish gangsters, noticeably fails to match. Harris depicts with tenderness the friendship between 12-year-old Cari and an elderly professor kidnapped by the revolutionaries, and when he describes her shock at first seeing a summary execution of two children, you have the sense that he is writing about a subject that moves and angers him. It leaves you wondering what he might have written, if he hadn’t felt obliged to write something that reads like a knock-off Thomas Harris novel.
• Cari Mora by Thomas Harris is published by William Heinemann (£20). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99
Source: The Guardian