Book: “The Silence of the Lambs” by Thomas Harris
Publishing Info: St. Martin’s Press, July 1988
Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.
Book Description: A serial murderer known only by a grotesquely apt nickname—Buffalo Bill—is stalking women. He has a purpose, but no one can fathom it, for the bodies are discovered in different states. Clarice Starling, a young trainee at the FBI Academy, is surprised to be summoned by Jack Crawford, chief of the Bureau’s Behavioral Science section. Her assignment: to interview Dr. Hannibal Lecter—Hannibal the Cannibal—who is kept under close watch in the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane.
Dr. Lecter is a former psychiatrist with a grisly history, unusual tastes, and an intense curiosity about the darker corners of the mind. His intimate understanding of the killer and of Clarice herself form the core of The Silence of the Lambs—an ingenious, masterfully written book and an unforgettable classic of suspense fiction.
Review: I first read “The Silence of the Lambs” when I was a freshman in high school. My mom and I were at a local drug store and they had the mass market paperback for sale, and she was kind enough to purchase it for me because she never censored what I wanted to read (even if she probably sighed to herself about her daughter’s morbid curiosities). I read it very quickly, completely immersed in the story. I saw the film shortly thereafter, and both are now very high on my lists in terms of favorite books and films. There has been a debate lately between film fans on Twitter as to whether “The Silence of the Lambs” is horror or not. Given that I watch it ever Halloween Season and my friends and I did a Netflix Party of it on one of our weekly Terror Tuesdays, I can see the argument for it being within the horror genre (though I myself flip flop between yes and no). Because of this, I decided that it was time to revisit the story in book form, and that I would include it in this year’s Horrorpalooza. And picking it up again felt like I was visiting an old friend.
This book is still so good. While I think that I PROBABLY like the movie better, that is only because the movie is so perfect at bringing all of these three dimensional and amazing characters to life. Hannibal Lecter is a literary villain who stands above so many, but this book is 100% Clarice Starling’s. Harris created a ‘badass female protagonist’ who feels so real, so relatable, and so nuanced that I’m continually shocked that a man wrote her (given that sometimes male authors can miss the mark when it comes to writing lady characters). You feel Clarice’s ambition, her frustration, her smarts and her anxiety and her need to solve the Buffalo Bill case, and you completely understand why she would go to the lengths she does… like getting close to Hannibal, even though he is incredibly manipulative and dangerous. I also really appreciated the moments of misogyny and sexism that she has to endure, as for 1988 for a guy to put those in, and to make them sting and hurt without feeling overdone or corny, that’s impressive. Clarice is such an important and formative feminist icon for me, and I was worried that revisiting her might not hold up as well. But it did. Hannibal, too, is a fascinating character, and while he doesn’t have the same amount of page time as Clarice (which is just fine), his insidiousness and his charm makes him very creepy, as well as vastly entertaining. But for me, it’s all about Clarice.
I had also forgotten how well Harris slowly builds to the Buffalo Bill mystery that is the true heart of “The Silence of the Lambs”. You get small references to it here and there, but it takes awhile to realize that this story is the one that Clarice is going head first into. Seeing her slowly gather her evidence, be it through talking with Lecter or going into a storage container to find evidence, or going to an autopsy and finding a bug, we get to go along with Clarice, see the pathology unfold, and then see Bill in action. And Harris really knows how to write a suspenseful scene. Even though I have read the book before and seen the movie countless times, I found myself getting nervous and anxious during some of the action moments. Especially during the Buffalo Bill kidnapping we get to witness on the page.
I will say that Buffalo Bill, while a really well done villain (and completely under appreciated in the movie. Ted Levine is GOD TIER and gets overshadowed by Hopkins. I get why, but my GOD, every time I watch Levine just blows me away), feels problematic now given that Bill is clearly dealing with some kind of gender dysphoria. I do know that Bill is based on a whole smorgasbord of serial killers, and that Jerry Brudos is almost assuredly the one who manifests in Bill’s obsession with womanhood (as during one of his attacks he was dressed like a woman, would dress up in his victims clothing, and had a huge thing about womens shoes). But while it’s stated that Bill isn’t ‘actually transsexual’ (paraphrasing from the text here) in the book, it still feels like there are shades of transphobia with the character. I think it says more about the time it was written than much else, but it’s definitely something to think about, and stands out for all the wrong reasons today.
Overall, “The Silence of the Lambs” is still a gripping, scary, and masterful classic that blurs the lines between thriller and horror. Re-reading was a joy, and I am glad I jumped back into it.
Rating 10: An enduring thriller classic that touches on real life horrors and (mostly) holds up.