“Clarice.” Two bone-chilling syllables, monotonously uttered by a verifiably insane Dr. Hannibal Lecter. The power doesn’t lie within the name itself. Rather, it’s how “Clarice” pops up throughout Thomas Harris’ seminal thriller, The Silence of the Lambs. When FBI agent-in-training Clarice Starling interviews the mad doctor, the name beckons, practically begging to be pronounced. Start with the hard “C” and lilt gently into the “reese,” ending the name with a hiss. It’s within this singular name, so vividly pronounced by a bonafide monster, that this time-tested thriller encases its appeal to fantasy readers. If you poke your sci-fi- and fantasy-obsessed head out like a surprised prairie dog at any mention of reading, you’ll find immense, disturbing joy in hearing Dr. Hannibal Lecter say those two syllables. The more lit-fic or crime drama-minded readers may appreciate the overly formal “Starling,” spoken with an air of authority and finality by those who outrank the novel’s protagonist. The “Clarice-ity” of The Silence of the Lambs bubbles to the surface when you read it through the fantasy lens, lending Thomas Harris’ work a distinct flair that gives every reader something to enjoy. At times, it feels as if Hannibal’s “Clarice” breaks the fourth wall, welcoming speculative fiction buffs into the crime narrative with an intensely disturbing character who may be the only person capable of stopping a different serial murderer.
The Silence of the Lambs is so ubiquitous that a plot summary feels like overkill. But just in case you need a primer, the story follows FBI Academy student Clarice Starling as she’s called up to interview cannibal and serial killer Dr. Hannibal Lecter. The FBI believes that Hannibal has clues to the identity of Buffalo Bill, a murderer who kidnaps and kills women in the midwest and the southern United States. The hunt for Buffalo Bill brings Clarice back to Hannibal for multiple interviews, and she develops a strange rapport with the doctor, even as he says her name with vicious resolve.
Thomas Harris has crafted a story that stands the test of time, even producing Oscar-winning performances from Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster in the film adaptation. The Silence of the Lambs is a polished and pristine work. And although it’s a crime drama, fantasy readers can reach the end of the novel having had a blast from cover to cover. And for that, we have Harris’ character masterpiece, Dr. Hannibal Lecter, to thank.
Clarice Starling’s chemistry with Dr. Lecter sticks out when they first meet. But it’s not the “will they bang?” chemistry forced upon us in every young adult fantasy in existence. It’s a strange understanding that stems from Hannibal’s training as a forensic psychiatrist. Hannibal strikes to the heart of Clarice, and she responds with just the information he seems to seek. All the while, Clarice gains crucial case details from Lecter in exchange for personal stories from her past. By the book’s climax, you almost wonder if they’ve become…friends? Not quite, but Clarice and Hannibal harbor some grudging respect for one another. Hannibal is a reflection of the thing Clarice hunts, and Starling is the very thing Lecter sought to destroy in his murderous rampages. They both exist as predator and prey, creating a truly unique relationship between two incredible characters.
When these two characters speak, it’s like watching two fencers duke it out with brilliant verbal flourishes and parries. Clarice’s clinical mind searches the battlefield (in this case, a glass wall between them) for something to give herself the upper hand, something to make a break in the Buffalo Bill case. Hannibal, meanwhile, knows he is in a position of power and only cedes ground when he knows it will benefit him. He doles out tiny details about Buffalo Bill that culminate in a terrifying revelation early on: he knows exactly who Buffalo Bill is. And he will only divulge the information in pieces, knowing he can leverage the knowledge for a more comfortable (or perhaps less secure) cell. On the other hand, Hannibal genuinely doesn’t care whether Buffalo Bill kills dozens of victims. To him, the mystery of The Silence of the Lambs is simply a game, and he’s playing with loaded dice.
This Clarice-Hannibal dynamic effectively creates a supervillain whose powers are completely ordinary in nature. Lecter’s impact, however, is extraordinary. The way he says “Clarice” (watch the movie for a pitch-perfect delivery of this single word from Anthony Hopkins), the way he parcels out information for seemingly trivial benefits, the way he can know everything about a person after they speak only a single sentence. These powers, paired with his murderous inclinations, make him a monster. And although he can’t slash or bite or stab in his heavily protected cell, his mental prowess still gives him enough fuel to become a force of nature hellbent on acquiring the freedom he feels he deserves.
In short, Hannibal Lecter satisfies in a way that many villains do not. He is a monster because that’s who he is. He kills because he wants to. He reaches into the psyche of anyone he meets and throws their emotions into a blender, hoping for a brain-mush smoothie both literally and figuratively. So many stories try to create a villain who is evil just because. And they fail. Hannibal Lecter, reflected by the pure-hearted but troubled Clarice Starling, is evil just because, and he flourishes as a character in ways that many antagonists simply don’t.
Rarely does a character feel so deliciously terrifying, so vicious and monstrous, simply for the sake of being a terrible, vicious monster. If you’re a reader in search of no-holds-barred villainy in an eloquent and frightfully intelligent package, Hannibal Lecter is your fix.
Hell, even if you want a fast, thrilling crime story, you could do a hell of a lot worse than The Silence of the Lambs.
Rating: The Silence of the Lambs – 8.5/10