By the time Silence of the Lambs, by Thomas Harris, came along in 1988, I had read the author's first novel, Black Sunday, as well as the book that first introduced us to Hannibal Lecter, Red Dragon. Lecter was little more than a minor character in Red Dragon, a role where he advised manhunter profiler Will Graham on how to track down The Tooth Fairy killer.
Red Dragon was fast-paced, slick and inventive. It brought to light the work done by profilers when hunting America's vast array of serial-killers. The book was so brilliantly put together it was seamless, fear and danger lurking on every corner of the page. A great idea, superbly executed.
It would be a full seven years before Harris produced his next book, but it was worth waiting for. As a fan, I'm one of those who read the book first and watched the movie second – by far the best way to tackle both. Silence of the Lambs, quite simply, blew me away. I didn't so much read it as devour it – and no, not washed down with some fava beans and a nice Chianti.
The story is well known: trainee FBI agent Clarice Starling is sent to interview the incarcerated Hannibal Lecter. She is told it is a simple errand, but what boss Jack Crawford really wants is an insight into a killing spree by Buffalo Bill. Lecter sees through the lie, but opts to help Starling if she, in turn, furnishes him with stories of her past. The two work closely together, leading Starling to Bill. But Lecter escapes, and whilst he takes out his anger on some, he tells Starling she has nothing to fear from his – provided she leaves him be.
This is a powerful psychological thriller. Starling's ambition, coupled with her boss's determination to catch a killer at all costs, combined with Lecter's chess move mind seeking to both torment and manoeuvre himself into a position where escape is possible, drives the reader forward at a breathless pace.
At times, Harris' writing is clipped and succinct. But every line delivers something that compels us to want to know more, to understand what drives these characters to its brutal conclusion. It is, quite simply, a masterpiece. And even though I cannot remove the mental imagery of Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins and Scott Glen from my mind when I re-read the novel, my admiration for this piece of work remains undiluted.
For my money, this was and remains the best book of its kind.