CARI MORA by Thomas Harris (William Heinemann, $A32.99)
On reflection it is astounding that Thomas Harris’ reputation as one of the world’s greatest thriller writers rests on only five novels, and arguably mainly on only two: Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs. It was these two which established the charismatic villain and pop-culture icon Hannibal Lecter and turned Harris into a highly successful author.
Harris is far from prolific and Cari Mora is his first novel since the disappointing Hannibal Rising back in 2006, and his first book outside the Hannibal canon in forty-five years, the last being the often-overlooked Black Sunday.
With Cari Mora, Harris has headed in a totally new direction, although there are still whiffs of that Hannibal brimstone. The story is essentially an Elmore Leonard heist yarn set in a vividly described Miami, Harris’ home for over twenty years, with the occasional kidney-eating slice of Gothic horror.
After a cryptic opening phone conversation, the story moves quickly to Biscayne Bay and a mansion once owned by the late Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar. The house now sits largely idle and unoccupied, apart from movie props and an electric chair, leftovers from its time as a movie set. It is presided over by a beautiful immigrant caretaker, the eponymous Cari Mora, who has left behind a torturous childhood in Colombia to start afresh in Miami. Unbeknownst to the authorities and the previous owners, there is supposedly a carefully hidden and bobby-trapped safe in the basement which holds twenty-five million in cartel gold. It is this treasure trove which sits at the core of the story, as a motley collection of competing crooks arrive in Miami to unearth the gold.
Their efforts to open the safe, without blowing themselves and the gold up, drives the book, and Harris smoothly moves the story through some twisty, violent paths before arriving at a satisfying conclusion in the swamps of Biscayne Bay. There is plenty of violence, some of which is unexpected, and a few nicely macabre touches involving crocodiles and dissolving bodies. There is also a typically gruesome Harris central villain, Hans-Peter Schneider, who, when he is not trying to recover gold bullion, amputates women’s bodies to satisfy the creepy sexual fantasies of his rich clients and sells their organs as a lucrative side business.
The hero of the story is Cari Mora, who still bears the physical and emotional scars of her early years as a child soldier in Colombia. Harris simply, but elegantly, tells the detail of her childhood in some of the book’s best passages and nicely captures her efforts to start afresh in America. Her training as a child soldier has equipped her well to deal with the delicate balancing act of keeping the various competing treasure seekers onside and helps her keep out of the reach of the creepy Schneider. She is a memorable character and, along with the descriptions of the Biscayne Bay wildlife, the best part of the book.
Cari Mora is more Elmore Leonard than Hannibal Lecter, although without the snappy dialogue. If you set aside your preconceived views about what a Thomas Harris novel should be, Cari Mora is actually a very good crime/heist novel with some fine artistic touches and a story line which kept me avidly reading until the end. Sure, there are some over-the-top elements, such as a minor character snacking on a human kidney, but Harris’ story of betrayals and bloodshed works well and is highly entertaining.
Several mainstream literary critics and lesser authors have been quick to criticise Cari Mora for what it is not, but in my view, it is a good story and well worth your time in reading it and reaching your own conclusion.
Four and a half stars out of five!