The name Clarice Starling is iconic thanks to Jodie Foster’s portrayal of the whip-smart young FBI Academy student, pitted against charismatic serial killer Hannibal ‘The Cannibal’ Lecter, in the Academy Award winning film from 1991. But her roots begin, as always, in the original book. Starling is a trainee at the FBI Academy, one of the brightest students in her class, and that’s how she draws the attention of the one and only Jack Crawford. Crawford knows imprisoned cannibal Dr Hannibal Lecter knows more than he’s telling the Feds about the string of murders happening around the U.S. by a killer the press have dubbed Buffalo Bill. Since he lost his previous protégé, Will Graham, after the events of Red Dragon, he turns his sights on pretty, intelligent, female student Starling as his last resort.
The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris is a 1988 psychological horror novel, and the sequel to Red Dragon. I both listened to the audiobook narrated by Frank Muller and read the physical book borrowed from the library. I had this book in my possession for a few many months, and it was only when it reached overdue status at the library that I finally pulled it out and read it in a couple of sittings. It’s been over a decade since I watched the Jodie Foster film, and basically nothing stuck except the basics, which made the book an exciting, fresh reading experience. Back then, I didn’t appreciate the film and was basically, like, “Oh, it’s just a lot of talking”. Over a decade on, I definitely appreciate the psychological element more.
Narrator Frank Muller was perhaps the perfect narrator for this ’80s classic. His old-school narration and the changes in voice between Dr. Lecter, Clarice, Crawford and the rest of the cast is impeccable. Whenever I struggled to read the physical copy, Muller’s narration definitely allowed me to consume this delectable book quicker, and the words were mesmerising, and I just wanted to know how it ended, even though I vaguely already knew how it ended. The physical book itself took a while to get into, but once the plot started, I couldn’t stop. Last year, I tried reading Silence of the Lambs after finishing Red Dragon, but kept getting stuck 40 pages in. This time, I got past the slog and straight into the excitement and the psychology and fascinating character studies.
There’s a lot of criticism about how Buffalo Bill is portrayed, but I think the book does a good enough explanation of why the antagonist is the way he is, and he is that way because he is a deluded, irrational psychopath who wants to make a skin suit out of women because he is a misogynist. Dr Danielson from Johns Hopkins sums it up: the antagonist, much like Dr Lecter predicts, doesn’t fit the psychopathology of Danielson’s normal patients. Mr Hide is decidedly NOT that and just does what he does because he has mummy issues and wants to make a skin suit of women to look as pretty as his mother.
While I really enjoyed Will Graham as a protagonist and missed him in the sequel—apart from a brief few mentions about his alcoholism and fucked-up face—Starling eventually grew on me. She starts off aloof and detached, but with Dr Lecter’s hectoring, you learn why she is the way she is. Also, the whole theme of the novel revolves around Buffalo Bill kidnapping and killing “fat” women (to Harris, this refers to women who are between 65-75kgs, which is barely fat by modern standards, and even by many health standards), which is considered peak unattractiveness, unlike pretty, beautiful, thin Clarice Starling, who is flirted with by almost every man she comes across, and is described by Buffalo Bill himself as being the most beautiful thing he ever witnessed. You can tell this book was written by a man, purely by all the men in the story who talk behind Starling’s back about how attractive, or arrogant-about-her-own-attractiveness Starling is. If you can look past the r/menwritingwomen vibes, and you should because this is a great book, then you’ll see what Harris is trying to do—and that’s comparing women’s perceived attractiveness, and how to Buffalo Bill, typically “unattractive” (i.e. overweight) women are attractive to him because he views women like lumps of polyester through the eyes of a Bangladeshi slave labourer. It’s apparent when he refers to his dog Precious as “her”, but kidnapped rich girl Catherine Baker Martin is only “it”.
Speaking of Catherine Martin, what really solidified my like of Starling was Harris’s foray into class analysis. When first victim Fredrica Bimmel goes missing, Starling sees a poor, working class girl like herself (a “yokel”, in Dr. Lecter’s words), who nobody cares about except her grieving parents. However, when Catherine Baker Martin, the daughter of Senator Ruth Martin is the latest kidnapping, well, you can guess what happens. Martin is a victim who matters, because she is related to someone powerful. Bimmel, like the other missing girls, is a statistic. But it is through the poor girl’s death that the rich girl can (may?) be saved, and no-one cares except Starling. Thanks to her similar upbringing and her ‘woman’s touch’, Starling is able to connect the dots, but Senator Martin and all the FBI bigwigs and Dr Chilton of the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane are too busy playing politics, only caring really when the victim is someone who actually “matters” to them. This is shown in the success of well-known serial killers—we don’t fuss when they kill the poor and the destitute and the prostitutes, but when it harms someone “human”, someone middle-class or above like rich kid Catherine Martin, then suddenly it matters.
Of course, we’re all here for the relationship between Starling and Dr. Lecter, and it was very fascinating, this standoff between an FBI trainee putting her double degree in Criminology/Psychology to the test, and finding that a charming, narcissistic psychopath may know her better than she knows herself. Dr Lecter’s a a smart man, and he knows it, and he’s definitely not supposed to be likeable, not like how people perceive Dexter Morgan, another similar bad guy who does horrible things (even prior to what he does in New Blood, innocent people are constantly fucked over by Dexter) but we justify them because they are played by charismatic, brilliant actors in their screen portrayals, but really, Dr Hannibal Lecter is just a charming, manipulative, narcissistic, psychopath, who only cares about himself—and a good meal, of course.
Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris is a book you may not have read, but you’ve definitely heard of the movie. The source material is well worth the read, and despite some flaws and niggles and a rocky, bumpy start, it’s an enjoyable psychological horror that’ll make you take a second look at your meal the next time your psychiatrist offers you a fancy dinner, or if you local tailor’s dwelling has a pungent odour and a faint screaming coming from beyond its doors.
P.S. Unlike some of the whiners replicating their misunderstanding of the LOST finale of a decade ago, I enjoyed the ending of Dexter: New Blood. It was mostly decent and definitely an improvement on Season 8!