Book Review: The Silence of the Lambs

05Dec13

silencelambsI first posted this review on my Goodreads account over here.

I have hinted at this in other reviews, but I will say it now directly: horror and I do not get along. When I was a kid, if I saw a horror movie by accident, I wouldn’t sleep for weeks. Thankfully, as an adult, my tolerance for horror books seems to have grown (I can read Stephen King without too much trouble), but still, I was decidedly trepidatious about reading the notorious Silence of the Lambs. Why did I read it? To see if I could. Will I be seeing the movie? No. No I will not.

Silence of the Lambs is equal parts gory suspense-thriller and police procedural drama. FBI trainee Clarice Starling has been sent on what is almost certainly a fool’s errand–to visit Dr. Hannibal Lector, imprisoned serial killer and cannibal, and see if he is willing to talk to her. The FBI is trying to build a database of profiles of serial killers, and for obvious reasons they want the database to include Lector. Lector doesn’t fill out the questionnaire. Instead he does something that is, at first, inexplicable: He tells Starling that there is a Valentine’s Day gift for her in the car of one of his victims. And so it begins, this cat-and-mouse between murderer and student, and it’s hard to tell who in the relationship is in control, especially when Starling’s interviews with Lector pull her into an investigation to capture an active murderer. Lector speaks in riddles and hints, so the action, while generally straightforward, is never predictable. And to my fellow horror-phobics: though the action ramps steadily upward, the horror doesn’t really; if you can get through the first ten chapters, you can probably get through all the way to the end.

The most surprising aspect of the book for me was Thomas Harris’ prose, which can be unexpectedly beautiful and affecting in a way that very, very few suspense novelists are. There is a moment, near the beginning, after Clarice Starling has seen the body of a murder victim. Any cop’s first body is bad enough (so I’m told), let alone one that’s been murdered as savagely as this woman has. Harris describes Starling’s reaction thus:

“In her life she had seen some of the hideously offhand ways in which the world breaks things. But she hadn’t really known, and now she knew…The knowledge would lie against her skin forever, and she knew she had to form a callous or it would wear her through.”

The knowledge lies against your skin, and you must form a callous or it’ll wear you through. That’s the most beautiful way to describe a most horrible thing.

Oh, and if you were wondering, the scariest moment in the whole book?

When the lights go out.

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