Cari Mora is Thomas Harris’ first book in 13 years, and his first non-Hannibal Lecter novel since his 1975 debut Black Sunday.
It’s not a long book – the official page count is 308, but once you strip out the blank pages, end of chapters and Chapter headings you’re looking at around 250 pages of large type story. I’d estimate it’s around 62,000 words in total.
When thinking about the book the obvious thing is to compare it to the Lecter series – it is, after all, what the author is best known for, and a large reason for the anticipation of this.
The story concerns the $25 million in gold hidden under a Miami Beach waterfront house. There are a lot of people after it, and Cari Mora, a young, beautiful woman who works as a caretaker at the house becomes the fixation of a number of them – some to gain the gold, some for even more dangerous reasons.
When you’ve created characters as iconic as Harris has is it, I would imagine, always going to be a challenge to move on – especially when you release books at such a glacial rate as he does. So Cari, the strong, independent and resourceful female protagonist is going to be compared to Clarice Starling and readers are going to be looking for a Lecter replacement – in this book that role falls to Hans-Peter Schneider: whom the blurb describes as a man with ‘unspeakable appetites’: if the reader is looking for anything as nuanced as Lecter, they will, however, be disappointed: perhaps the problem of being an innovator is that so many imitators follow that when you yourself create a new character it can resemble the weaker produce of those that followed you more than your own original creation – for me, that was how Schneider came across: from the start we’re told in detail of his sadistic pleasure in suffering, but that’s almost de rigueur in the modern thriller.
The story is relatively slight – different factions want the gold and bloody, violent conflict occurs between them with the heroine in the middle of it. The writing style too is pared down to the bone. ‘Honed perfection ‘ The Times call it, and that may be: Steinbeck, Hemmingway didn’t use overly grandiose writing style either. James Ellroy in a closer genre is pure minimalism. Yet for all the simplicity of the writing Harris’ style can jar a little at times – some of the dialogue feels stilted: and maybe that’s because of the English as a second language of a number of the characters featured, but there are also changes in tense which, while not wrong, threw me a little bit. A very simple example, with no spoilers: ‘Candy wore short shorts and a blouse tied at the midriff. She’s looking good’. That’s a style Harris uses throughout the book.
There are some nods to other works in the book – one character apropos of nothing eats a human kidney, which I can only take as a self-reference, and there is one scene which feels as if it came straight out of Breaking Bad.
There are a number of secondary characters, but few who stand out: for example, Don Ernesto (known as ‘Don Teflon’ – not the most imaginative of nicknames in a post Gotti world), or Terry Robles, a Miami Detective who pops up halfway through the novel, and who we may think is going to play a part of relevance given the backstory he is provided in his opening chapter, but then disappears to play no real part in the book.
Ultimately, is the book good? Would it be published if it was read as an anonymous submission? Possibly. Possibly not. It’s a perfectly good quick read – and given the word count, that’s probably a day’s read (it certainly was for me), and things move along briskly. It is descriptive in parts – of Miami wildlife and fruits, but much of the meat is written as to be so matter-of-fact I read it thinking, did that really happen or is it a red herring? But then, no – it happened alright, and we’re on to the next thing: there are a lot of deaths, but the characters generally are so quickly introduced or sketched in description that they barely register.
Is Hans-Peter Schneider as memorable as Hannibal Lecter? No – but that’s not really fair: few if any characters in recent crime fiction are. It would be more reasonable to ask if he is any more memorable or interesting as one of the villains in any other popular writer’s books of recent years: a Jeffrey Deaver or similar for example. Unfortunately, for me, the answer would still be no.
There was always going to be a ridiculous level of anticipation from those of us who have enjoyed Harris’ writing so much – perhaps an impossible level. It’s not that I need or even want another Lecter book at this point or am looking for another series of the length/ depth of those earlier books, I just thought that there might be a bit ‘more’ to the book.
I’m writing this on the morning the book is officially released: I think my local Waterstones may have made a bit of a mistake and put it on their shelves (at half price even) a day before the official release dates, so I’m yet to read a single review of the book: I’m intrigued to see what others think of it: I’m sure it’ll get the usual 5 star reviews from die hard fans, and the 1 star disses from the haters. Me? I’m firmly in the middle…