Sunday 16 June 2019

Cari Mora by Thomas Harris

Thomas Harris is my favourite living crime novelist... maybe my favourite living novelist. He writes slowly, sometimes a paragraph a day, sometimes nothing. 

So perhaps it isn't surprising, though it is frustrating, that it's taken 13 years for his new novel to arrive.

It was however, worth the wait. I've read some snotty reviews of Cari Mora, motivated by the fact there is nothing of Hannibal Lecter in this book. But I actually think it's all the better for that.

In fact I think this might be Harris's masterpiece. It's a short book — probably more like a novella in length. But it is beautifully, perfectly wrought.

The novel focuses on the woman named in the title. And Cari Mora is a magnificent character. Clearly Thomas Harris wants to write about people we can care about — love, even.
Towards the end of his spate of Hannibal Lecter novels, Harris started trying to humanise Lecter and justify him. Culminating in Hannibal Rising and some questionable results. 

But here he is starting with a clean slate, and a wonderful new character and we can care about Cari without restraint. As a result, this book is — despite the terrible things it depicts — more positive and life affirming than his previous ones. 

Once more we have the monster and maiden dichotomy, with a gruesome psychopathic killer pitted against a strong, compassionate heroine. The heroine in this case of course is Cari, a refugee with considerable experience of violence.
And the monster is Hans-Peter Schneider. Hans-Peter is a human trafficker — unlike Hannibal, a commercially motivated monster. And Cari is in his sights because she might expedite access to a fortune in gold.

For all its horrors, this is a sunnier tale than any of the Hannibal Lecter stories, both figuratively and literally — we're back in the Florida Harrison has so lovingly evoked before in portions of Red Dragon — but here it's the location for the entire book. 

And it's such a beautifully written book. Consider this description of the aftermath of an attack on a village by Marxist guerrillas:

"They had blown some walls off the schoolhouse and the wind was blowing through the strings of a burning piano, sighing, sighing and whining through the strings in the gusts that blew sheet music across the road."

I also adored the fact that Cari is an animal lover (as is Harris; see him here at a bird sanctuary and above, hugging a possum called Bruce) and animal life is a constant, splendidly evoked presence in the book. 

Like the cockatoo standing on Cari's wrist "eyeing her earrings" and who has a repertoire of salty phrases garnered from its "checkered life."

And did I mention that Harris is funny? But his humour sits in constant proximity to menace and potential mayhem: "The bedrooms were a piggish mess... The one made-up bed had some lewd comic books and the five parts of a field-stripped AK-47 scattered on it."

Of course Harris knows how many parts there are to an AK-47, and exactly how to assemble one, as he will show us on the next page. His research is exemplary.

Thomas Harris is the master of the super-charged policier. His sardonic tone, the brilliance of his prose, his supreme command of suspense and his gift for violent action were all, I believe, honed by his reading the works of John D. MacDonald.

(There is an echo of MacDonald's The Drowner in a terrifying moment in Cari Mora.)

Thomas Harris is John D. MacDonald's true successor in these regards and also in his concerns for animals and the environment, and his loving depiction of Florida.

Thank heavens Harris is still with us, and still writing. May he write many more novels. And perhaps even speed up a little...

(Image credits: The book covers — there are only two so far — are from Good Reads. The cover of The Drowner by John D. MacDonald is also from Good Reads. The photo of Thomas Harris in a blue blazer is by Robin Hill and is from Penguin. The other photos of Thomas Harris are by Rose Marie Cromwell and come from an excellent interview with Harris by Alexandra Alter in the New York Times. The AK-47 diagram is from Mouse Guns. The much more lovely white cockatoo is from Pinterest.)

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