Title: The Silence of the Lambs
Paperback: 421 pages
Publication Date: 07/05/2009
One of the many things that makes The Silence of the Lambs such an incredible crime thriller is the fact that it is a serial killer novel in which the serial killer story arc [the FBI’s search for Buffalo Bill] is fairly subsidiary – the main focus of the book is Hannibal Lecter. That being said though, in the form of Buffalo Bill, Harris has still created an eminently scary serial killer. In fact, ‘Bill’ is a hybrid creation that utilises elements of various real-life American killers – namely, Ed Gein, Gary M. Heidnik, and Ted Bundy.
Like Gein [who was also the inspiration for Norman Bates in Psycho and Leatherface in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre], Buffalo Bill flays his victims in order to use their skin as clothing. Like Heidnik, Buffalo Bill also keeps his victims in a dark pit in his basement. And his MO – using a pretend cast on his arm to lure one of his victims to the back of his vehicle – is the same technique that Bundy used. This all gives Buffalo Bill a terrifying kind of realism, one that makes all of his scenes gut-churningly believable.
However, the stand-out character and star of the novel is – of course – Dr Hannibal Lecter. Despite being fiercely intelligent, charming and deeply charismatic, there is a real aura of danger about him – one that almost permeates off the page whenever Lecter appears in the novel – and his battle of wits with rookie FBI agent Clarice is brilliantly realised and written by Harris [in fact, Clarice hasn’t even graduated the Academy, so she’s not strictly speaking even a rookie – a fact that makes her duel with Lecter all the more compelling]. I don’t think that it is too big a claim to say that Hannibal Lecter really is one of literature’s great anti-heroes.
In fact, he is such a magnetic character that, in the hands of a lesser author, there would be a very real danger that he would become the sole focus of the novel and undermine the serial killer plot line. However – thankfully, Harris is no ordinary author – which is why The Silence of the Lambs remains a seminal thriller. So much so that, even some twenty three years after it was first published, it still remains incredibly fresh and addictively readable [I have read the novel multiple times and yet it is still as brilliantly feral and clammily suspenseful each and every time I pick it up – that despite the fact that I know exactly what is going to happen].
There are a few moments that do show the novel’s age, such as the use of Polaroids [I just about remember them from my youth, but they really are something from a bygone era!] and the mention of a ‘new’ FBI unit called ViCAP [the acronym for the Violent Criminal Apprehension Program – something that is almost ubiquitous in American serial killer fiction today]. But these moments are few and far between, and really just reinforce quite how much of a trail-blazer Harris was.
For The Silence of the Lambs has undoubtedly had a profound effect on the crime thriller genre – you need only look at the number of gorily violent serial killer novels that are published each year as proof. Indeed, it is so good that it even has a cover quotation from Roald Dahl!