The Silence of the Lambs is one of the most taunting, suspenseful, psychological thrillers ever written. This novel is harrowing, dark, moody, sober, and truly frightening, yet exhilarating. The intimate and disturbing characterisations of mass murderers who mutilate their victims (usually female) were shocking, particularly the character of the evil Hannibal Lecter.
When FBI trainee Clarice Starling is called in to interview famous convicted murder Hannibal Lecter, he gives her information which may help her catch an active serial killer, Buffalo Bill. The Silence of the Lambs has an intense readability, which isn’t something I often value in books because it can denote a lack of complexity or substance–but because of its psychological focus, Silence has both. It’s a psychological thriller and procedural drama with lots of momentum (and the superb chapter-length helps, staccato-short without stooping as low as cliffhangers) but intentional depth; the characters are good–Hannibal, of course, is compelling, but the core cast and Clarice in particular (once Harris moves beyond a self-congratulatory study on how unpleasant it is for women to experience sexism) are viewed with a gratifying psychological eye which justifies and even excuses the head-hopping. That the film adaptation of this book is so faithful does credit to both versions–Silence is a solid piece of work, and unfailingly enjoyable to read.
Jame Gumb adds flavour to the all-too-bland ‘kill all psycho’ found in so many Hollywood horror flicks. A troubled, would-be transsexual whose passions to arouse others led him into flaying women in unspeakable ways. You can also understand Gumb has a side of him that enjoys sadism. Which is demonstrated when he plays his ‘basement games’, in which he does when killing some of his victims (shutting off the lights, following them in the darkness, opening and locking doors for the victim to walk into). Yet we can also see the personal love of Gumb; the love he had for his dog, and his obsessions with love. What I am summarising, quite simply, is that Gumb is a freak. But how did Gumb become the way that he was, one might ask. Hannibal Lecter notes to Starling that “Billy wasn’t born a criminal, no, he was made one through years of systematic abuse. His pathology is a thousand times more savage, and more terrifying.” The novel helps to uncover Gumb’s childhood and life.
Thomas Harris doubles the interest/intrigue in the novel by setting up two serial killers in tandem: young women are being murdered by a man with very specific tastes, and only asylum inmate and prolific cannibal, Hannibal Lecter (who has an agenda of his own) is able to shed light on who the culprit is. It’s a testament to Harris’s skill as a writer that these two stories weave together seamlessly. Harris also achieves what so few crime novels achieve: he humanizes the murder victims. Kidnapped Catherine Martin, who is next on the chopping block, is given just as much character (and an unexpected amount of grit and humour) as is afforded to the villains in this story. She may be stuck down a hole for the entirety of the novel, but she has agency.
This book has incredible tension and shows how intelligent and manipulating Dr Lecter can be through his conversations with Starling, which are intriguing and thought-provoking. The plot is well written with a strong female protagonist who needs to capture one killer by talking to another. Now, If you don’t mind stepping out of your comfort zone, please join the infamous Hannibal Lecter and help yourself to this masterpiece. This is a fantastic good read from a master storyteller.