Cari Mora by Thomas Harris (Grand Central, 2019)
Hannibal Lecter . . . Just the name sends chills down one’s spine. Lecter, who had a penchant for dining on human brains and “fava beans with a nice Chianti,” was first mentioned briefly in the 1981 novel The Red Dragon. However, Lecter takes center stage in the masterpiece of horror fiction, Silence of the Lambs, playing “quid pro quo” with FBI agent, Clarice Starling. Thomas Harris then penned Hannibal and Hannibal Rising but neither of those two works arose to the palpable tension created between Clarice and Hannibal in Silence of the Lambs.
After creating such a memorable monster as Hannibal Lecter, it is nearly impossible for an author to recapture that literary brilliance in a new character. Remember Mary Shelley, the one hit wonder, who wrote Frankenstein in 1797, when she was only 18? More than 200 years after that novel first appeared, the monster looms in modern culture still, but little Mary married Percy Shelley and not much was heard of her after that. Dracula, based on the historical figure, the demented Vlad Tepes, was published by Bram Stoker, who never penned another book that would have been number 1 on the New York Times best seller list. Yet, the monster created by Victor Frankenstein and the character of Count Dracula remain entrenched in modern pop culture centuries after they first appeared.
The literary world has waited for thirteen years for Thomas Harris to publish again after Hannibal Rising. When I heard about the release of Cara Mori, I was so excited that I ordered a signed copy from Barnes and Noble. The first few pages seemed promising. We are introduced to a number of unsavory characters, including Jesus Villarreal, who sucks on a respirator for air and Hans Peter Schneider, who is described as having long canine teeth, being tall, pale, and totally hairless. Schneider is spying on a large house on the Florida coastline, taking in the enticing site of the caretaker, a woman known as Cari Mora. He is also assessing where he might locate the hidden treasure that he believes in buried somewhere on the massive property, once owned by Pablo Escobar.
Mora is a loner with a terrible history. As she sits beside the water, she thinks back to her past, “The wind off the bay was full of ghosts tonight---young men and women and children who had lived or died in her arms as she tried to stanch their wounds, had fought to breathe and lived, or shivered out straight and gone limp.”
In these first few chapters, which are shorter than those in a James Patterson novel, Harris establishes the creep factor for which he is so appreciated. The Miami mansion that Cari looks after, has been owned by “a series of playboys and fools and real estate speculators,” who had left behind the detritus of their careers; movie props, monster mannequins, jukeboxes, horror-film props, a sex chair, and “an early electric chair from Sing Sing that had only killed three, its amperage last adjusted by Thomas Edison.” It is easy to imagine Cari Mora making her way to bed in the dark and eerie mansion,.
While Cara is falling asleep in the Haunted Mansion, Hans Peter is amusing himself by cremating “a girl who hadn’t worked out for business.” Hans Peter admires the machine that he has acquired for a rather high price. Corpses are liquified, rather than burned to ashes, which Hans Peter has been told is better for our carbon footprint. Hans Peter delights in watching the process. “Karla’s bones were beginning to stand up out of the paste the corrosive lye water had made of the rest of her. The machine rocked, sloshing fluid back and forth. The machine burped and bubbles came up,” the reader is told.
So, we have established that the novel has the creep factor. We have strange characters as well as an eerie setting. We even have a man-eating crocodile later in the book. Where does the novel go wrong?
First, Cari Mora is not a sympathetic character. Although she has had a terrible childhood, having been forced into serving as a child soldier in her homeland of Colombia, Harris fails to breath life into Cari. Yes, she witnessed horrific things in her life; she has killed people. But, when Cari has flashbacks, she doesn’t emote or react to them. Thus, she is a flat character, and we simply don’t care much about her.
The biggest failure of the book is the lack of a definitive plotline. I had no idea of where the novel was headed, and frankly, I just wanted to finish it and get to my next novel. The writing, although there are some decent passages, seems mechanical and amateurish.
I also noticed (and this is really picky) that the font of the novel was huge, and I did not buy a copy intended for the visually impaired. If the book had been published in a standard font, it would have more likely been a novelette. It didn’t seem that Harris (please pardon the pun) truly fleshed out the storyline enough to pique our interest.
I have so much respect for Thomas Harris. Black Sunday, The Red Dragon, and Silence of the Lambs are such great, engaging novels, that Cari Mora seems like it was written by an amateur. If Thomas Harris can’t do better than this, another 13 years lapse in his publishing another book is okay with me.