This is my year of horrible reading.
I am reading the classics of horror fiction
during the course of 2016, and each week
will write about a significant work in the
genre. You are invited to join me in my
annus horribilis. During the course of the
year—if we survive—we will have tackled
zombies, serial killers, ghosts, demons,
vampires, and monsters of all
denominations. Check back each week for
a new title...but remember to bring along
garlic, silver bullets and a protective
amulet.  
T.G.
POSTMODERN MYSTERY
New Angles on an Old Genre
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ROGUES GALLERY:
THOMAS HARRIS
Essay by Ted Gioia

When David Foster Wallace published a list of his 10 favorite books shortly before his
death, many readers were surprised at the choices—some even thought he might be
"screwing with us." How else can we explain the presence of so many genre books and
bestsellers on the list? But there they were, in all their tawdry splendor.

Check it out. Here is DFW’s top ten:

The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis
The Stand by Stephen King
Red Dragon by Thomas Harris
The Thin Red Line by James Jones
Fear of Flying by Erica Jong
The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris
Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein
Fuzz by Ed McBain
Alligator by Shelley Katz
The Sum of All Fears by Tom Clancy

Ah, those who dig into the DFW archives know that he was dead serious about these
books. A similar list can be found on the
syllabus to Wallace’s 1994 class in literary
analysis. Guess which author takes pride of place on that required reading list, the only
writer to have two works assigned?

The answer: once again it’s Thomas Harris, author of
The Silence of the Lambs. (The
other Harris book on the syllabus was
Black Sunday—although on Wallace’s top 10 list
he replaces it with
Red Dragon.)

Wallace added a warning to the students: "Don’t let any potential light weightish-
looking qualities of the text delude you into thinking that this will be a blow-off-type of
class. These ‘popular’ texts will be harder than most conventionally ‘literary’ works to
unpack and read critically."

Is he "screwing with us"?  I don’t think so. Well, at least not any more here than in
everything else he did in the public eye.

Harris does deserve close reading, especially in
The Silence of the Lambs. How can you
possibly start a genre crime novel with the murderer already arrested, convicted and
behind bars? How can you create suspense when the serial killer can’t add another
victim to his list, but merely exists as a subject of behavioral study? How can you
generate reader interest in a closed case, an old almost forgotten criminal—in short, old
news?

Related Links
My Year of Horrible Reading by Ted Gioia

Such is the challenge Thomas Harris sets for himself in The Silence of the Lambs, and
not only does he surmount the self-imposed obstacles of his unconventional narrative,
but he succeeds brilliantly. Among the growing number of genre books that draw on
conventions of both horror fiction and the crime thriller,
The Silence of the Lambs
stands out as the most compelling exemplar of what such a hybrid can achieve. And it
does so by exhibiting remarkable disdain for the rules of the genres.

That said, the success of this novel is driven primarily by a single ingredient, the
character Hannibal Lecter—who clearly earns (both in these pages and in his on-screen
representation by Anthony Hopkins) his reputation as one of the most memorable
villains in the history of storytelling.  When the American Film Institute selected the
100 best (worst?) movie villains in 2003, Lecter topped the list—beating out Darth
Vader, Norman Bates and the Wicked Witch of the West. But the literary Lecter is just
as  mesmerizing as the cinematic one.  He takes center stage for less than half of this
book, but the most compelling scenes in the novel are, without exception, those in
which he appears. When Lecter isn’t around,
The Silence of the Lambs drops several
notches in intensity.

Lecter also breaks a cardinal rule of crime fiction—and this probably accounts for his
centrality to the novel. In a rare turnaround, the criminal is the smartest person in this
book. We are all familiar with detectives flaunting their superior intellects—Poe and
Doyle set the tone for this with their creations Dupin and Holmes, and their blueprint
still holds sway in the 21st century, just as it did back in the 19th. But Lecter is always a
step ahead of everybody in this book, and when an investigator comes up with a lead or
clue, it is invariably because Lecter wants it to be found. He is the only character who,
in the course of this novel, never makes a misstep—well, at least not an analytical
misstep. When it comes to ethical issues, all bets are off.

The novel begins with FBI trainee Clarice Starling taking on the task of interrogating
the infamous Lecter as part of a government program to profile serial killers. Lecter,
under tight security at a Maryland hospital prison, is the perfect person to question
about such matters. He is an eminent psychiatrist, well-versed in the mental states of
sociopaths. But more to the point, he is a sociopath himself, a dangerous serial killer
known to the press as “Hannibal the Cannibal.”

Anyone approaching Lecter is advised to act with caution. He has been known to take a
bite out of visitors who get too close. And even when he seems to cooperate, he can’t
really be trusted. He prefers to manipulate, to deceive, to confound. He is the
quintessential villain for a narcissistic age—and this is probably the reason why Wallace
found him so intriguing: Lecter commits crimes not for money or revenge or jealousy
or even out of sheer craziness. Everything he does aims at a single, not illogical
endpoint: to assert his superiority. What better way to do that than to literally swallow
up and digest the adversary? Forget Zarathustra, Dr. Lecter is the real Nietzschean
Übermensch.

Yet Clarice Starling seems to develop a peculiar rapport with the serial killer. And she
learns that Lecter may possess insights that could lead to the apprehension of another
serial killer still on the loose, the macabre Buffalo Bill, who skins his victims but only
after first holding them captive for several days.  Yes, this book is filled with
Nietzschean wannabes.

Lecter lets drop several clues that seem to help the investigation, but the disappearance
of the latest victim, the daughter of a US Senator, adds particular urgency to the
interrogations. Lecter’s expertise now draws interest from competing government
agencies and politicians—and the incarcerated criminal sees how he can manipulate the
various parties to his own purposes.

The novel that started with a simple, straightforward plot, now has multiple storylines
moving forward and intersecting—involving two different criminals, a long list of
victims, and a host of investigators. Harris juggles these plots deftly, and manages to
have them all converge at the same endpoint. Here again,
The Silence of the Lambs
earns its place on the syllabus of a college class. A lot of craft is exerted in pushing this
grisly story towards its conclusion.

Yet our author doesn’t resolve all of the loose ends. Can you blame Mr. Harris? He
wants to leave room for a sequel, and that requires him to give Hannibal Lecter enough
degrees of freedom, in the final pages, to keep the readers coming back for more. I feel
cheated by books that destroy the unity of the narrative in exchange for a lucrative deal
for a follow-up novel, and I chastise Thomas Harris for playing this game.


Nonetheless, Hannibal Lecter is one of the great genre characters of the last half-
century, and who I am to deny him an encore performance? Or several encores, for that
matter.  If a spy or detective can earn the right to a brand franchise, why not a
cannibalistic villain? At last account, Dr. Lecter has appeared in four novels, and a half
dozen films or TV shows. I’m sure video games and graphic novels are on their way, if
they aren’t already on the market. Considering this long drawn out success, I can only
conclude that Hannibal Lecter isn’t the only protagonist with skill in manipulating his
audience and turning them to his own purposes. Thomas Harris has proven quite adept
at that too.




Ted Gioia writes on music, literature and popular culture. He is the author ten books, most recently
How to Listen to Jazz (Basic Books).

Publication Date: June 7, 2016
Be on the lookout for Thomas Harris. But
don’t expect to find him. He hasn’t given an
interview since 1976. The author photos
are out-of-date. Harris may even be in
disguise. His agent
has commented:
"If you met him,
you would think
he was a choir-
master."  When a
bookstore owner
once confronted
him browsing the
shelves, and asked
him to sign copies
of his books, he
disappeared faster
than Hannibal
Lecter leaving a
crime scene. Most
information about
him comes secondhand, if not third or fourth.

Yet Harris reportedly called his mother
every night, up until her death in 2011. Our
devoted mama’s boy was born in Tennessee
and raised in Mississippi, before heading
off to Baylor University in Waco, Texas to
study English. His writing career started at
the bottom, covering local crime for the
Waco Tribune-Herald. He soon moved
beyond Waco, to New York to work for
Associated Press, but kept up his interest in
lawbreaking.  He left the newspaper world
behind in 1974, and established his new
identity as a hugely successful crime fiction
author. His first novel,
Black Sunday,
earned him a lucrative movie deal, and
since that time, every one of his novels has
been turned into a film.
The Silence of the
Lambs
even served as the (unlikely basis)
for an off-Broadway comic musical.
Nothing gets an audience laughing quite
like cannibalism on stage.

Other adaptations of Harris’s works are less
amusing, for example the
alleged Turkish
serial killer who was called "Hannibal” by
his high school friends, and later may have
taken the nickname a bit too far. In truth
Harris himself may be obsessed with his
own character—judging by his
efforts to
learn more about the real-life killer behind
the story. When he comments on his
characters, for example in the forward to
the 2000 edition of
Red Dragon, he almost
acts as if they are real people. Let’s hope he’
s wrong.
The Silence of the Lambs
by Thomas Harris
To purchase, click on image
Postmodern Mystery
Reading List

(with links to essays)

Peter Ackroyd
Hawksmoor

Douglas Adams
Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective
Agency

Martin Amis
London Fields

Paul Auster
Leviathan
The New York Trilogy

Thomas Bernhard
The Lime Works

Jedediah Berry
The Manual of Detection

Alfred Bester
The Demolished Man

Roberto Bolaño
2666

Jorge Luis Borges
Ficciones

Truman Capote
In Cold Blood

Michael Chabon
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Agatha Christie
The A.B.C. Murders

Robert Coover
Noir

Friedrich Dürrenmatt
The Pledge

Umberto Eco
Foucault's Pendulum
The Name of the Rose

David Gordon
The Serialist

Witold Gombrowicz
Cosmos

Mark Haddon
The Curious Incident of
the Dog in the Night-Time

Elizabeth Hand
Generation Loss

Thomas Harris
The Silence of the Lambs

Patricia Highsmith
The Talented Mr. Ripley

Norman N. Holland
Death in a Delphi Seminar

Franz Kafka
The Trial

Jonathan Lethem
Gun, with Occasional Music
Motherless Brooklyn

Jean-Patrick Manchette
The Prone Gunman

Gabriel García Márquez
Chronicle of a Death Foretold

Cameron McCabe
The Face on the Cutting-Room
Floor

Philip MacDonald
The Rynox Murder

China Miéville
The City and the City

Mo Yan
The Republic of Wine

Patrick Modiano
Missing Person

Haruki Murakami
Kafka on the Shore
A Wild Sheep Chase

Vladimir Nabokov
Pale Fire

Joyce Carol Oates
Mysteries of Winterthurn

Flann O'Brien
The Third Policeman

Orhan Pamuk
The Black Book

Georges Perec
A Void

Marisha Pessl
Special Topics in Calamity Physics

Thomas Pynchon
The Crying of Lot 49
Inherent Vice

Alain Robbe-Grillet
The Erasers
The Voyeur

Leonardo Sciascia
The Day of the Owl
Equal Danger

Gilbert Sorrentino
Mulligan Stew

Theodore Sturgeon
Some of Your Blood

Miguel Syjuco
Ilustrado

Other articles and feature:
50 Essential Postmodern Mysteries
The 8 Memes of the Postmodern Mystery
Selected Quotes on Detective Fiction
My Year of Horrible Reading


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Contact Info:
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www.tedgioia.com

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