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Cannonball Read 2 #21: Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris

In short, Silence of the Lambs is the story of a young, ambitious FBI agent-in-training who teams up with a dangerous and psychopathic incarcerated genius in order to stop a serial killer. The book is mostly from the perspective of Clarice Starling, a young woman in the Quantico training program who wants to become a profiler with the FBI. She is sent by Jack Crawford--head of Quantico's profiling program--to speak with famed serial killing psychologist Hannibal Lector, ostensibly to try and persuade him to fill out a survey for research purposes. Dr. Lector quickly begins a cat and mouse game with Starling, and hints to her that he knows the identity of the serial killer "Buffalo Bill" who is plaguing the FBI by kidnapping and skinning young women. The story continues as Clarice tries to balance using Dr. Lector with being used by him for his own purposes. It also follows the hunt for "Buffalo Bill" and the struggles of his latest hostage.

The book is quite captivating, and the character of Clarice is very well drawn. However, the star of the novel is definitely "Hannibal the Cannibal," arguably the most fascinating fictional psychopath in literary history. His interactions with Clarice are very much a highlight of the book--in fact, at several points I found myself longing to skip ahead (past the procedural hunt for the at-large killer) to their next meeting. Although Lector is not "on-stage" at all times, his presence is felt at all times. The relationship between the two main characters is much more fascinating than the question of whether or not "Bill" will be captured before he kills his hostage.
I have read Harris's follow-ups (both sequel and prequel) and frankly compared to Silence of the Lambs they are both okay, but nothing particularly special.

It's difficult to read this book without considering the Oscar-sweeping film version starring Jodie Foster and Sir Anthony Hopkins. It is amazing to me how closely the film follows the novel--though some small changes have been made and a few minor things left out, the movie doesn't suffer in the slightest. The performances (particularly Foster and Hopkins) are stunning and deserving of the accolades they received. Foster is excellent as Starling, a hard-nosed young woman desperate to make something more of herself than her white-trash small town past. And Hopkins is stunning as Lector; he is the epitome of courtly menace, of a brilliant mind corrupted yet still sharp. The entire supporting cast are equally good in their parts, particularly Ted Levine as the totally disturbing "Buffalo Bill."

I'd highly recommend both the novel and the film to anyone, though those who are delicate about violence should probably skip them.


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