Crocodiles, gold bars, birds of prey… and boobs. Erin Harrington, an academic specialising in horror and film, reviews the much-hyped new novel by the man who gave us Dr Hannibal Lecter.
Cari Mora is Thomas Harris’s first novel in 13 years, and the first since his 1975 debut Black Sunday that doesn’t feature his most famous creation, Dr Hannibal Lecter. It comes with a great deal of anticipation, which is fuelled by breathless praise on the jacket, but the book’s a slight, only occasionally diverting thriller with laudable aims but sometimes perplexing execution.
Caridad – Cari – Mora is a young Colombian woman who lives in Miami on a very fragile Temporary Protected Status, having escaped the Colombian armed conflict with a scarred body and a very particular set of skills. While hovering in administrative uncertainty she works various odd jobs, which includes acting as the caretaker for a waterfront mansion once owned by narcoterrorist Pablo Escobar. The house is packed with junk leftover from porn and horror movie shoots, but deep beneath it lies a large, explosive-lined safe packed with millions of dollars of cartel gold, its front decorated with a painting of Nuestra Senora de la Caridad del Cobre, Our Lady of Charity, the Blessed Virgin Mary. (The joke is lost on no one).
The gold acts as the story’s MacGuffin as various intersecting criminal organisations – some thieves, some murderers, some more savoury than others – try to find a way to retrieve the loot without being blown to bits. Cari is drawn into the heist despite her repeated requests to stay out, although this isn’t the novel’s key conflict. She doesn’t realise that’s she’s been singled out by the story’s gurning villain, the grotesque mercenary Hans-Peter Schneider, who wants to abduct her, mutilate her, and sell her on to a Mauritanian fetish club for rich sickos. The book offers only scant details of Schneider’s perversions, and I admit relief that the ‘conflict between male desire and female survival’ mentioned on the jacket doesn’t translate to some kind of grotty rape-revenge or sexual captivity narrative. The pair are slowly drawn together, and part of the book’s pleasure is in realising just how badly Schneider has underestimated his target.
Much of the action centres of the business of burglary and the negotiations of various crime bosses and underlings, but I am most taken by the way that present day Miami, and the Colombia of Cari’s past, are presented as lush, crowded ecosystems. David Attenborough would have a field day: the book is populated with pelicans, crabs, crows, owls, spiders, porpoises, capybara, manatee, ibises, osprey, herons, spiders, ravens, fish, possums, chickens, turtles, goats, cats, donkeys, sheep, dogs, and all manner of insects, as well as a foul-mouthed cockatoo. Importantly, we learn that when Cari was a child soldier she was tasked with looking after a naturalist who had been kidnapped as a hostage. He is forced to teach the children a bastardised form of Darwinism, one that justifies the guerrillas’ brand of Communism, and later he helps Cari find her way to the United States.
This blunt invocation of Darwin asks the reader to reflect on the meaning of ‘survival of the fittest’. From the outset, many characters think of themselves, smugly, as strong, ruthless predators, and their victims as prey, although the metaphors are, at times, really heavy-handed. Schneider is described as pallid, hairless and reptilian, with prominent canine teeth. Immigration officials, too, prey on the weak and vulnerable, while immigrants skirt around the margins, whistling in birdsong-like code to ensure their own survival. Cari is also associated with birds, wings and flight: she has dreams of training as a vet, and she volunteers at an animal and bird rescue centre, rehabilitating broken birds of prey. As the book circles inward to its climax, we’re asked to consider who is really the best suited, the most fit, for their new environment. Hint: it’s not Schneider.
In his previous work, Harris has taken great pleasure in playing with doubles, doppelgangers and inversions. While this clearly relates to the novel’s use of menagerie as overt metaphor, it also applies to its villain. Cari Mora lives in the very deep shadow of Harris’s most famous creation. Over the course of Harris’s four Lecter novels, and their film and television adaptations, Hannibal the Cannibal has shifted from horrific antagonist to compelling, sophisticated anti-hero. This is most apparent in Bryan Fuller’s gorgeously lush series Hannibal, in which Lecter is handsome, sensuous and beguiling – an apocalyptic gourmand. Whether it is by accident or design, I cannot read Cari Mora’s big bad as anything other than a funhouse version of Lecter; after all, one of the first things we learn about him is that he is a gifted mimic. The sketch that we are offered of Schneider, though, indicates that he is so villainous as to be almost laughable, like a combination of the albino monk from The Da Vinci Code and the mad scientist from The Human Centipede, but with more classical music and non sequiturs.
Like Lecter, Schneider sees himself as a cultured European aesthete, and he makes beautiful drawings of all the horrible ways he’s going to disfigure Cari before selling her on. When he’s not enjoying watching a previous victim turn to sludge in a liquid cremation machine (every home must have one), he’s posing like Rodin’s The Thinker or standing in the shower, blasting away on his Aztec death whistle. He harvests kidneys in motel rooms; no chianti and fava beans here. He listens to Schubert while reflecting upon the abuses of his childhood. The real giveaway for me is that, like Lecter, he has constructed a memory palace for himself, but here all of Lecter’s wit and sophistication is drained away, leaving nothing more than a vile human version of the f-bombing cockatoo. Whether Harris is engaged in a bizarre act of pronounced self-plagiarism, or prodding at the reader, I cannot help but feel that I am being asked: who do choose to root for, and why? The voracious Euro-monster, or the adaptable, resilient young female immigrant?
For all my love of animals and monsters, I find that Cari Mora is often underwhelming. The prose is brisk and perfunctory; if anything, this could be described less as a thriller than a crime procedural. This works best in action scenes, in which characters are concerned only with the shorthand of survival. However, too often this sparseness just feels slight, and lacking in insight, even when we share characters’ perspectives. (This is doubly the case when those characters are men who are gawking at women, and the prose is all boobs and hotness and pretty faces.) These gaps and glimpses gesture towards the visible surface of countless sunken horrors and suppressed trauma, but it’s almost completely lacking in affect, and occasionally absurd. It does not help that tenses shift oddly, and that sentences are often tortured beyond the bounds of conventional grammar: when confronted by a police official, we hear that “Anger swelled in Cari, looking into Robles’ face, into dark eyes like hers in the backyard of her own house”. On the bright side, those troubled by descriptions of violence will find that they can easily skim through.
It is more frustrating that few characters are rendered in any level of psychological depth, which means that it is hard to care much when many of them (mild but unsurprising spoiler) inevitably snuff it. Even Cari remains an enigma: we’re invested in her success and her survival, and we’re granted glimpses of her relationships, ambitions and horrendous childhood, but we’re still kept at arm’s length. I find myself most interested in peripheral characters, such as a preacher in an assisted-living facility who offers the sacrament to a motley group of companion animals (another mega-metaphor alert), or the languid saltwater crocodile who stashes her kills dangerously close to the big box of gold.
The result is a swift but not particularly challenging or memorable read. It’s a pity, because the novel itself is dedicated to Miami, and to those many immigrants who have made it to the United States on foot. The baroque horrors invoked by cartoon villains and the greed of the Keystone crims is all ultimately less important than the portrait of a diverse community that is trapped in a mortifying, inhumane legal and social limbo. It’s just a pity that, like the crocodile’s underground larder, it all feels a bit shallow.
Cari Mora, by Thomas Harris (William Heinemann, $37) is available at Unity Books.
The Spinoff Review of Books is proudly brought to you by Unity Books.
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.