In his first post-Hannibal Lecter book, Thomas Harris heads for Elmore Leonard territory.
Nearby, the body of a young woman is slowly dissolving in caustic lye water. Soon, she’ll be poured down the drain.
Liquid cremation instead of cannibalism. Cari Mora is Thomas Harris’ first book in 13 years (and only his third in the three decades since Silence of the Lambs), but his fondness for depicting human depravity remains, even if many other things have changed since the all-time-classic serial-killer novels he crafted in the 1980s.
Hans-Peter Schneider is the psycho in the shower, a German-speaking Paraguayan national (a descendant of Nazis who fled after the war?) who caters to clients with monstrous fetishes. He’s a human trafficker who mutilates women for money, or harvests their organs.
Now Schneider has set his sights on a treasure hunt. Legend has it that $25 million in gold bars lie in a booby-trapped safe hidden in a Miami villa once owned by Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar. Schneider hires mercenaries to pose as a film crew, rent the villa and extract the loot, but he’s not the only one in the hunt. A drug cartel also wants the booty.
The villa’s caretaker is Cari Mora, a scarred beauty who’s seen plenty of horrors. Forced to be a child soldier by rebels from a Colombian guerrilla army, she hopes for a quiet life in Miami, caring for her extended family, learning to be a vet and cementing her visa status to avoid deportation.
Inevitably, carnage ensues as Schneider’s henchmen and the cartel crew try to grab the loot, and he turns his eye towards Mora. The past four Harris novels have all been adapted for screen and Cari Mora has a cinematic feel, but in this case the ideal director would be someone like Quentin Tarantino, given the blend of stark violence and the absurd.
There’s a sense that Harris has his tongue planted in his cheek, giving spare nods to his past classics while creating a sunstruck heist thriller more akin to works by Elmore Leonard than any psychological exploration of the minds of serial killers and the detectives who hunt them.
Cari Mora rips along and is hugely entertaining. Readers expecting a Lecter-level villain will be disappointed – Schneider is repulsive without any of the cannibal psychiatrist’s chilling magnetism. But in Cari, Harris has created another fascinating and formidable heroine. Seasoned with issues close to Harris’ heart (immigration and refugees, Florida birdlife), Cari Mora is something unexpected from a man who influenced a genre. Not frightening, but fun.
CARI MORA, by Thomas Harris (William Heinemann, $37)
This article was first published in the July 6, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.