Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Black Sunday

My ten great books #9: The Silence of the Lambs

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The Silence of the Lambs

(Note: For the last two weeks, I’ve been counting down the ten works of fiction that have had the greatest influence on my life as an author and reader, in order of their first publication. For earlier entries in the series, please see here.) 

What makes a novel worth reading more than once? In the case of a mystery or thriller, the answer isn’t always clear. After our first read, we know who did it and why, whether the hero will survive, and whether the villain will get away with it: we’ve seen every chase, every reveal, every twist of the plot. If enough time has passed, the details can get a little fuzzy, so it can be fun to revisit the mystery again—I’m not sure I could tell you who the killer was in The Three Coffins or Rim of the Pit, mostly because the culprit’s identity is secondary to more immediate pleasures. But after you’ve revisited a novel enough times, it can be hard to explain what keeps you coming back. I’ve read The Silence of the Lambs from cover to cover on perhaps ten occasions, and I’ve seen the unsurpassed movie version at least as many times, so it’s safe to say that it no longer holds many shocks or surprises. Yet I know I’ll keep reading it for as long as I enjoy popular fiction, and I suspect that it may eventually become the novel I’ll read more than any other. The reasons are hard to pin down, but they clearly don’t have much to do with the specifics of the story, as much as I still admire the ingenuity with which it unfolds. Rather, as with most great suspense novels, it’s more a question of detail, craft, and attitude, which the best works of Thomas Harris—which also include Black Sunday, Red Dragon, and even long sections of Hannibal—display to greater effect than any other novels of their kind. And The Silence of the Lambs remains the best of them all, the one book, along with Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal, that epitomizes the heights of the genre in which I’ve unexpectedly found myself making a living.

Harris is first and foremost a master of detail, both in terms of lavish research—I’ve seen Red Dragon recommended to aspiring thriller writers simply as a primer on criminal investigation—and in small, telling moments of observation and character. The scene I’ve reread the most isn’t the first one that might come to mind: it’s the tense, beautifully rendered chapter in which Clarice Starling searches the storage garage that might hold the key to an unsolved murder. In the hands of another writer, the sequence might have been a routine nailbiter, but Harris enriches it with countless lovely touches: the way Clarice, resourceful as always, fixes a stuck lock with a few drops of oil from a dipstick, or how she uses the jack from her car to lever up the rusty door. (Chapter 9 of my novel Eternal Empire is basically an extended homage to this scene, as my own heroine Rachel Wolfe, who owes a great deal to both Clarice and Dana Scully, searches for evidence in the basement of a derelict house.) Plenty of thrillers are filled with such lore, of course, but Harris delivers the goods with a panache inseparable from his larger themes. The Silence of the Lambs is a relentlessly grim story, but it’s also a celebration of intelligence and competence even under the bleakest circumstances. In the figure of Hannibal Lecter, this tendency is taken to an almost inhuman degree: Lecter has nothing but his mind, and his ability to transcend his physical prison is what makes him so improbably seductive. (It’s also why he’s so much less interesting when he isn’t confined to his cell.) And I can’t help but take the story’s most vivid characters as reflections of the author himself. All novelists live by their wits, whether to escape their own prisons or to explore the world’s darker corners, and for a few—too few—great novels, Harris was one of the best explorers we had.

Hannibal’s crossing

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Last year, I wrote a long post titled “The sad case of Hannibal Lecter,” in which I lamented the fact that one of the most compelling fictional characters of the past thirty years had been destroyed by excessive backstory and authorial indulgence. Since then, this posting has become one of the most frequently viewed entries on this blog—mostly because of people searching for the Hannibal Lecter mask—and I’ve had a chance to revisit Lecter several more times, notably while reflecting on the movie adaptation of The Silence of the Lambs. What remains unchanged is my original conviction that Lecter is a ferociously effective supporting player who wilts when thrust into the spotlight, a wish-fulfillment character who doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. It’s always dangerous when an author falls in love with his own creation, and in this case, fond father Thomas Harris ended up being Lecter’s worst enemy.

So you can imagine my feelings at the announcement that Lecter is being retooled for a new television series, of all things, focusing on the relationship between Hannibal and FBI profiler Will Graham prior to the events of Red Dragon. Bryan Fuller, the producer given the unenviable task of bringing this show to life, is a smart guy, and it’s possible that he’ll surprise me with an unexpected take on the material. And Lecter will evidently be confined to his cell for most of the series, which is exactly where he belongs. But for the most part, this project seems utterly misguided, an attempt to wring the last bit of interest out of a character who made his most indelible impression in eighteen minutes of screen time. Even if there really is demand for more Lecter, this is a textbook example of Joss Whedon’s axiom: “Don’t give people what they want. Give them what they need.”

And yet there’s a bright side to all this. Thomas Harris, despite his self-imposed seclusion, was once the best suspense novelist in the world. There’s a reason why The Silence of the Lambs recently topped NPR’s list of the best thrillers of all time: no one, not even Forsyth, has been better than Harris at his peak. And one of the saddest spectacles in recent literature has been watching Harris waste his talent on Lecter. After the novel Hannibal, there was clearly nowhere else for the character to go—especially once the movie version’s ending departed so radically from the original—so Harris was forced to dig deep into backstory, with the usual sorry results. Lecter’s dialogue used to be razor sharp, if often slightly too clever; in Hannibal Rising, he was reduced to lines like “My heart hops at the sight of you, who taught my heart to sing.” As Anthony Lane said in his review of the book: “What the hell is going on here?”

But I remain hopeful that the old Harris still exists. We know for a fact that Harris is a slow, laborious writer: Stephen King has spoken of him as “writhing on the floor in agonies of frustration.” But the results were worth it. The more mediocre thrillers I read, the more I come to appreciate the Harris of Black Sunday, Red Dragon, The Silence of the Lambs, and even parts of Hannibal: his attention to detail, the density and texture of his prose, the inventiveness of his violence, and his odd compassion. And I’m convinced he can do it again, as long as he leaves Lecter behind. I’ve always thought that a new thriller by Harris, without Lecter, would be a major publishing event, and the fact that Harris seems willing to relinquish his most cherished creation to television—when he wrote Hannibal Rising expressly to prevent an unauthorized prequel from being made—implies that he has finally learned to let go. With Lecter outsourced to Bryan Fuller, could Harris give us another great novel? My heart hops at the thought.

Written by nevalalee

September 13, 2011 at 8:49 am

The sad case of Hannibal Lecter

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Nothing happened to me, Officer Starling. I happened. You can’t reduce me to a set of influences.

—Hannibal Lecter, in The Silence of the Lambs

Yesterday I mentioned The Silence of the Lambs as a book that any aspiring writer might want to study to see how, exactly, it works, and with good reason: it’s possibly the most perfect thriller ever written. One could also read, with profit, the two earliest novels by Thomas Harris: Black Sunday is a fine, underrated book, and Red Dragon, though it has some structural problems, is still astonishing. Yet Hannibal, his fourth novel, should be approached with caution, and Hannibal Rising should best be avoided altogether. And the story of how Harris went from being the finest suspense novelist in the world to a shadow of his former self is an instructive cautionary tale.

Harris began his career as a crime writer for the Associated Press, and his background in journalism—like that of Frederick Forsyth, my other favorite suspense novelist—is evident in his earliest novels. Black Sunday is full of fascinating reportage, while Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs are virtual textbooks on forensic profiling and criminal investigation. (While I was writing The Icon Thief, I was almost always rereading one of those three books, along with the best of Forsyth and James M. Cain.) Harris’s writing could be baroque, but he also had a nice ear for technical jargon, and a sense of how smart cops and FBI agents might talk among themselves.

None of these things would have made so great an impact, however, if Harris hadn’t also created Hannibal Lecter, the most vivid and enduring fictional character of the past thirty years. And the really impressive thing is that Lecter originally appeared in only a handful of chapters in Red Dragon and perhaps a quarter of the pages in The Silence of the Lambs. (Anthony Hopkins’s performance in the movie version of the latter consists of only eighteen minutes of screen time.) We don’t learn much about Lecter, we see him only briefly, but we—and the other characters—spend a lot of time thinking and talking about him when he isn’t onstage. And this is crucial to his character’s appeal.

Why? Here’s the big secret: when you shine a spotlight on Hannibal Lecter, he disappears. He’s unbelievable. He’s omniscient, infallible, unfailingly one step ahead of his adversaries. Aside from being utterly insane, he’s perfect. The fact that he’s embedded within a novel that is otherwise incredibly convincing and plausible, down to the smallest details of police procedure, blinds us to the fact that Lecter is a fantasy. And that’s fine. Nearly all the great heroes of popular fiction—and Lecter is a hero, cannibal or not—are fantasies as well, and they don’t hold up to scrutiny. WIlliam Goldman, in his wonderful book Which Lie Did I Tell?, does a nice job of explaining why, in reference to a very different character:

The character of Rick [in Casablanca], of course, is very old—he’s the Byronic hero, the tall dark handsome man with a past.

Most movie stars—actors, not comedians—have essentially all played that same role. And they have to always face front, never turn sideways—

Because, you see, there’s nothing to them. Try and make them full, try and make them real, and guess what? They disappear.

…Hollywood heroes must have mystery.

Which applies just as much to Lecter, if not more so. It also applies to many of the most popular characters in fiction, who exist entirely in the moment. For all the valiant efforts of Sherlockians, we know almost nothing about the past of Sherlock Holmes. Forsyth’s Jackal doesn’t even have a name. And while it isn’t necessary for every novelist to go so far, remember this: backstory can be deadly. The primary interest of a fictional character comes from what he does, or doesn’t do, in the story itself, not from what happened to him before the story began. Character comes from action. If you’ve written a compelling character, of course, readers are naturally going to want more backstory, which is great—but that doesn’t mean you should give it to them.

Which is precisely where Harris went wrong. In Hannibal, and even more so with Hannibal Rising, Harris forgot that his most famous character absolutely needed to remain a mystery. Lecter was the breakout star of the series, after all, and readers clearly wanted to see more of him. So Harris turned Lecter into the lead, rather than a key supporting character, gave him a massive backstory involving Nazis, cannibalism, and a castle in Lithuania, and finally made him, in Hannibal Rising, almost entirely admirable and heroic. To use Martin Amis’s memorable phrase, Harris had “gone gay” for Lecter. And the series never recovered.

I still hope that Harris comes back and writes another amazing novel. I really do. Even Hannibal, for all its problems, has remarkable moments (although Hannibal Rising is almost entirely worthless). All the same, it’s been four years since we saw a new book from Harris, a notoriously slow and methodical writer, and there hasn’t been a whisper of another project. And the pressure to write another Hannibal Lecter novel must be tremendous. But I hope he resists it. Because an ambitious new thriller by Harris without Lecter would be the literary event of the year, maybe the decade. While another Lecter novel would be thin gruel indeed.

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