Thursday 23 August 2012

Ali Karim's Silence To Die For - The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris

Ali Karim is Assistant Editor at Shots eZine, a contributing editor at January Magazine & The Rap Sheet and writes for Crimespree Magazine, Deadly Pleasures. He is an associate member of The Crime Writers Association [CWA], International Thriller Writers [ITW] and the Private Eye Writers of America [PWA]. Karim contributed to ‘Dissecting Hannibal Lecter’ ed. Benjamin Szumskyj [McFarland Press] a critical examination of the works of Thomas Harris; The Greenwood Encyclopedia of British Crime Fiction [ed. Barry Forshaw] and the Edgar and Anthony Award nominated ITW 100 Thriller Novels ed David Morrell and Hank Hagner [Oceanview Publishing]. In 2011 at the Anthony Awards held at Bouchercon St Louis, he was presented with the 2011 David Thompson Memorial Award for Special Services to the Crime and Thriller Genre.

Ali Karim is also the programming chair for Bouchercon 2015 in Raleigh, North Carolina, USA.

When Ayo Onatade asked me to write about John Connolly and Declan Burke’s Books To Die For, she remarked that she didn’t need to guess which featured book and essay I would chose. She was right, despite the massive array of masterful essays from some of our leading writers commenting on novels that appear at the apex of the genre, there will always be one book, and one writer that I would die for.

Firstly, I have to admit my love and hatred of books like this, having contributed to them myself. The love of these peer reviews / appreciations comes from my own reading compulsion, and reading extensively allowing me to learn about life and the “world / reality” I see before me through the eyes of others. The hate comes from my knowledge that I am far from as ‘well-read’, as I consider myself, though this is tempered by using tomes such as this, in seeking out books and writers that I have overlooked, or perhaps cajoling me to re-read a particular work due to someone else noticing something or aspects writing, that I had missed. Much of this comes from my understanding of the aging process in a reader. Some books that knocked ‘me for six’, when I was a teenager, when I re-sampled them later in middle age, have not stood the test of time. Others however appear much more complex than my teenage mind understood at the time I first cracked their spines. You see, the books [per se] have not changed [unless they are redux versions, like Stephen King has done with ‘The Stand’ releasing it a decade later with additional text that was edited out in the first release]. Though what has changed is the reader [and his/her mind]. Age [and life] alter ones thinking and cognition and therefore changes aspects of the book, when re-read many years later with a more mature mind.

I have to applaud the Irish writers Connolly and Burke for producing such an interesting and hefty tome; an audacious idea soliciting erudite and passionate essays from some of the worlds greatest writers about books that enthused them. For what is life without passion and enthusiasm? And who best to select such milestones in the crime and thriller genre than the writers who plough that dark road themselves. The contributors are a “who’s who” of contemporary fiction, and to list them all would be a feat itself, and proves what a herculean task Connolly and Burke have achieved. Speaking in hyperbolic terms, the novel and essay that Ayo Onatade guessed would be the one I would write about is of course Kathy Reichs’ essay on Thomas HarrisThe Silence of the Lambs.

Reichs’ essay is filled with insights, that start with Harris’ precursor, the 1981 Red Dragon and Harris’ reoccupation with the injustices of God, as viewed by Lecter and Harris’ own Southern Baptist past. As a scientist, Reichs indicates the layered authenticity in the narrative from Harris’ own journalistic background as a crime reporter, but special mention is made on the characterization, how Harris carves the protagonists and antagonists as if deploying the skills of a master sculptor. Writing about such a well known work of the genre is a tricky assignment, though Reichs’ excels at showing the importance of secondary characters such as the Smithsonian entomologists Pilcher and Roden and how the scenes that flow from the narrative owe more to Poe than Ludlum. She uses the term ‘unsettling’ in her examination of Harris’ novel and how this atmosphere bleeds into the narrative, making the reader as edgy as one of Buffalo Bill’s victims. Naturally mention of the examination of the relationship between Lecter and Starling is shown as being pivotal to the proceedings. The critical point in the examination of Harris’ Silence of the Lambs rests in the opening from the editors “Harris maintains a low media profile and is reputed to find the process of writing intensely difficult: he has published only five novels in thirty-seven years”. This indicates that to produce something as definitive as Silence of the Lambs is hard, hard work, something that is shared with the novels dissected in this wonderful book.

Kathy Reichs’ last line ‘His writing greatly influenced mine’ shows the respect she has for this genre-shaping novel; a work that is as unsettling as it is insightful. Reading it makes one feel what it is like, to be that rabbit hypnotized and paralyzed by the headlights of that oncoming car, the self same metaphor that Harris uses in the first chapter. The Silence of the Lambs is not a book that you walk away from without your worldview being shaken, like a bullet wound, when you close the covers, it remains inside you, reminding you what the dark end of the street feels like.

Continuing the hyperbolic theme, Books To Die For is probably the most important work chronicling the novels and writers that make the crime and thriller genre the most interesting part of fiction-publishing. Any enthusiast who does not have this volume on their bookshelf is depriving themselves of the most enlightening glimpse of what the vertigo-inducing heights that crime and thriller fiction can scale. Reading it is like going back into a time machine, as you get flooded with memories of ‘what and who you were’ when you read some of these magnificent novels; because they scar your psyche.

Bravo Mr John Connolly and Mr Declan Burke for producing such a treat, and one that will endure and one that I hope to see in the non-fiction award nominations for 2012.  

And Ayo, you guessed right, it will always be The Silence of the Lambs for this reader, as Thomas Harris has produced a monster of a novel, and one that Kathy Reichs’ essay does justice to.

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