It’s been 13 years since Thomas Harris released a new book, and 44 years since he wrote one that wasn’t related to a certain charming Lithuanian cannibal. The creator of Hannibal Lecter, one of the most iconic villains in pop culture history, has kept out of the public eye for the most part. You don’t really need to be front and center when your gruesome creation has formed a life of his own through film, television, and numerous knock-offs. Really, the Hannibal Lecter of screens big and small isn’t all that much like the figure Harris created, having evolved into a baroque figure of near operatic sophistication and human flesh puns. Lecter has defined Harris so wholly that it’s almost a surprise to remember that he did once write another book that had nothing to do with him, way back in 1975. Now, we can add Cari Mora to that pile.
The heroine of the title is a former child soldier turned undocumented immigrant working as a cleaner in Florida. While hiding from ICE and trying to carve out a life for herself, Cari Mora looks after an empty mansion in Biscayne Bay that once belonged to Pablo Escobar. Hidden under this house, so the rumours say, is a thousand pounds of gold, and every one-shot gangster and sociopath in the state wants to get their hands on it, but especially the insidious Hans-Peter Schneider.
It’s unfair to compare Cari Mora to all things Hannibal given that Harris is clearly keen to avoid such parallels, but one of the reasons the Lecter books — or at least the first two — hold up so well all these years later is that their characters remain enthralling. Lecter, Starling, Graham, and the extended ensemble are lived-in creations that intrigue as much as they often repulse us, with Harris delighting in showing how little it takes to turn someone from decent to depraved. Hannibal Lecter may have become a tongue-clicking parody of himself by the time Hannibal was released — although his dignity was reclaimed by the near-operatic re-imagining of Bryan Fuller and Mads Mikkelsen — but it’s still hard to find him uninteresting. Everything in this book, by comparison, dares you to be invested in it.
At the heart of Cari Mora is Hans-Peter Schneider, a man who is almost always referred to by his full name. Completely hairless and a lover of all manner of violence, Hans-Peter Schneider specializes in amputating women’s body parts to appease the extreme fetishes of his clients and has a liquid cremation machine on hand for emergencies. He even sells organs on the black market, for those wanting a little Lecter flair to the equation. He should be threatening on some level, and some of his interactions with Cari do turn the stomach, but the tonal dissonance of the overall novel screws up any possibility of true threat. Sure, a guy who mutilates women is frightening, but then you remember the moment where one of the characters says he looks like a penis in a hat and it ruins the moment entirely.
There was a point about a quarter of the way through this thankfully speedy read where I wondered if Cari Mora was supposed to be a dark comedy. The Miami Beach setting, combined with the grotesque ensemble of threatening idiots, cannot help but call back to writers like Carl Hiaasen, whose Florida crime capers are famed for their satirical take on the Sunshine State. The problem for Harris is that the funniest bits in the book are unintentionally so, like the moment where Hans-Peter Schneider says that he can just melt a woman and flush her down the toilet if she starts to annoy him (I know I’m supposed to be scared or disgusted by that image but admit it, you’re imagining a Looney Tunes scenario right now). Hiaasen’s books work because he has a hyper-specific understanding of Florida, its people, and everyone else’s jokes about the state, something Harris reduces to generalities and racial stereotypes. He also doesn’t get Hiaasen’s political savviness, although he does try now and then, especially in reminding the world that ICE are pure evil and the President is pathetically stupid (I appreciated it, Tom).
And then there’s Cari Mora himself. No pressure on Harris to create a compelling female character or anything, it’s not like he’s the man responsible for one of the great heroines of crime fiction (or for totally f*cking up her story in a way I’m still super bitter about). She certainly has the makings of one, but she feels like a much more serious character than what the rest of the novel is trying to pull off. Cari has some great moments but in a novel that could have sorely used more camp, she feels restrained by the madness around her. It is refreshing to see the heroine be a woman of colour going up against a white guy who is probably descended from Nazis (in for a penny, Harris).
It’s not all bad. Harris can still ratchet up the tension when need be and his work is never anything less than highly readable, the pages whizzing past as you indulge in whatever strangeness he has to offer. However, Cari Mora still feels like a novel torn between the two extremes that he’s made his career on. This thing needed to go super over-the-top or completely pull back into the harsh psychological realism that tore Will Graham to shreds. Either lean in to all the Hannibal-ness of it all that there’s clearly still an audience for (RIP the best show ever) or truly cast away that weighty mantle in favour of something new. It seems that, for Thomas Harris, a world without that is just a little too tough to bear.
Cari Mora is available wherever you get your books from. Now please enjoy this image of Thomas Harris with his pet possum.
Author of Silence of the Lambs, Thomas Harris and his pet possum, Bruce. Have you ever seen a better author photo?! 😍🙌📚 pic.twitter.com/S1OTtNcVDF— Shelf Life Books (@shelflifeyyc) May 18, 2019
Header Image Source: Goodreads // Grand Central Publishing