In the mid-1980s, during what many might consider to be one of the more problematical phases of his career, Bob Dylan took to appearing on stage wearing an anorak with the hood raised. Thus concealed, he would commence upon the evisceration of beloved songs from his back catalogue, while hardcore fans attempted to pick traces of Masters of War or Like A Rolling Stone from the ensuing carnage. It was the sound of an artist engaged in the deconstruction of his own back catalogue, an attack on the past as a potential harbinger of future change.
Dylan was in his forties by then, a difficult decade for any artist. As Thomas Harris writes in his second novel, Red Dragon, of the FBI profiler Will Graham: “It seemed to Graham that he had learned nothing in 40 years; he had just gotten tired.”
Almost four decades since the publication of that book, the same might be said of Harris himself, although we can only speculate based on the available textual evidence. In this age of ubiquity, Harris – in common with his near-namesake, Thomas Pynchon – remains an enigma. He does not give interviews, makes no public appearances and, according to reports, regards the act of writing as a form of torture.
His reputation rests on three novels published between 1981 and 1999 – Red Dragon, The Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal – each featuring the cannibalistic psychiatrist Dr Hannibal Lecter. The first and second of these are masterpieces of the thriller genre, elevated by the quality of Harris’s prose, the subtlety of his characterisation and the acuteness of his psychological insight. Every thriller writer that followed, myself included, worked in their shadow. The third in the sequence, Hannibal, although more problematical, is graced with a surreal climax and an eerie, ambiguous coda, the only logical conclusion to the lovers’ dance of Lecter and his FBI pursuer, Clarice Starling. Of the rest, 1975’s terrorist thriller Black Sunday is very much apprentice work, while 2006’s Hannibal Rising is poor, and little more than a novelisation of a film script.
Beneath the house is a safe, believed to contain Escboar's gold
Now we have Cari Mora, Harris’s sixth book – and, given his age and the paucity of his output, probably his last. It is a frustrating, inconsequential confection, one in which, like those half-heard Dylan riffs, fragments of its creator’s earlier brilliance occasionally gleam, rendering the rest more disappointing by comparison. The middle-aged Dylan, struggling with visions of potential future selves, had some reason for being reckless with his legacy. Harris, at 78, has no such excuse.
Caridad “Cari” Mora, a former Farc guerilla now resident in Miami, Florida, is the housekeeper in a residence formerly owned by the late Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar. Beneath the house is a safe, believed to contain Escboar’s gold, and assorted ne’er-do-wells are now circling in the hope of retrieving the treasure.
The worst of these villains is the hairless deviant Hans-Peter Schneider, trafficker in mutilated women and their internal organs, and proud possessor of a liquid cremation machine for the disposal of human remains. Schneider begins to take Cari Mora’s foiling of his plots increasingly personally, setting the stage for a final confrontation.
Harris has always been engaged by monsters, but ones with dramatic, emotional, and intellectual weight, such as the deformed Francis Dolarhyde in Red Dragon, besotted with a blind woman, or the self-loathing Jame Gumb in Silence, seeking to transform himself using the skins of his victims. Theoretically, Schneider should be another in this line, but he is a caricature, and nothing more.
Cari Mora herself, meanwhile, appears to continue Harris’s laudable tradition of placing strong female protagonists – Clarice Starling, Molly Foster Graham, Catherine Martin, Dahlia Iyad – at the core of his narratives, but she is given a backstory, albeit the strongest section of the book, in place of an inner life. The rest of the characters, if that’s the correct word for them, are mostly stock Latinos and Latinas, destined to be reduced to severed, disfigured, or exploded heads, Harris’s enduring fascination with deformities of the mouth now seemingly extending to the entire cranium.
Cari Mora can only really be read as a black comedy; its strokes are too broad for any other interpretation. Bach’s 13th Goldberg variation, the Quodlibet, is repeatedly associated with Schneider in the form of the refrain “Sauerkraut And Beets Are Driving Me Away”. A quodlibet is a light-hearted composition involving the performance of popular folk tunes in counterpoint and was reputedly a source of much mirth in the Bach family, people having to make their own entertainment in those days. Harris never inserts a reference casually and the use of this particular cue signals his awareness of the traditions in which he is working.
The grotesqueness of the novel's imagery owes much to Victorian stage melodrama and the gothic
As with the novels in the Lecter quartet, Harris is playing here with the tale of Beauty and the Beast, although Cari Mora also contains a nod to Peter Pan in the form of the crocodile that acts as the guardian of Escobar’s treasure. The grotesqueness of the novel’s imagery – a half-consumed torso here, a burning skull there – owes much to Victorian stage melodrama and the gothic, but Cari Mora lacks what Flannery O’Connor termed the “inner coherence” necessary for the successful appropriation of the latter. Finally, the Miami setting and dark humour suggest some familiarity with the work of Florida’s arch-satirist Carl Hiaasen, although the book has none of Hiaasen’s heart, or even his sense of righteous indignation at the moral and ecological failings of humanity.
I desperately wanted this novel to be better and to applaud Harris as he exited on a high note. Cari Mora is rarely dull, because the sensibility of its creator is too atypical for that, but it is careless and underwritten. The shallowness of its characterisation means that its violence comes across as simple sadism: bloodthirstiness for its own sake, a series of brutal, if comic, tableaux for the masses. In Hannibal, Lecter attends an exhibition of Atrocious Torture Instruments, but he gazes at the spectators, not the exhibits. “Elemental Ugliness is found in the faces of the crowd,” the narrator – Harris in all but name – remarks.
So if Cari Mora is a comedy, it is one in which the joke is on the reader. See, Harris appears to be saying, here is torture and disfigurement. Here is grotesquery and villainy. Here is a lone woman facing off against a dreadful monster. Here, even, is a little cannibalism. Is this not everything you expect of me?
Everything, perhaps, except excellence.
John Connolly’s latest novel is A Book of Bones