“Cari Mora” by Thomas Harris (Grand Central) 311 pages, $29
Gourmand serial killer Hannibal Lecter may be off the menu, but now his creator, Thomas Harris, has added a new dish of terror. “Cari Mora” is Harris's first novel since “Hannibal Rising” appeared 13 years ago. Fans of his earlier best-selling books – and the movies and TV shows wrung from them – will taste familiar ingredients in “Cari Mora,” along with a touch of Stieg Larsson's “Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” and even a dash of Carl Hiaasen's Florida zaniness. But the whole thing would definitely go better with some fava beans.
The story is mostly a snooze: not so much “The Silence of the Lambs” as The Counting of the Sheep. It opens in Biscayne Bay at a mansion once owned by the late Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar. Only one person has the nerve to work as a caretaker of this old house of horrors: a beautiful immigrant named Cari Mora. At the age of 11, Cari was captured by rebel guerrillas and used as a child soldier. But “she was quick and dexterous and strong,” Harris tells us, and managed to escape, though she remains deeply scarred. Now, she can make a mean rat soup, dispatch a muscled thug with her crucifix pendant and touch up her makeup on the fly. Maybe she's born with it (maybe it's Maybelline), but she's certainly gunning to be the next Lisbeth Salander.
As Cari hides from U.S. immigration agents, nothing about Escobar's creepy house frightens her. In fact, aside from passing tourists, the only people still interested in the building are a bunch of dopey gangsters who suspect a safe in the basement holds a thousand pounds of gold. While the novel plods along with a hodgepodge of macabre silliness, various crooks try to figure out how to open the safe without blowing themselves to kingdom come. All Cari has to do is stay out of their way. Despite a few shootouts, beheadings and a hungry saltwater crocodile, most of this is about as suspenseful as watching Geraldo Rivera knock on Al Capone's vault.
The real terror at the center of “Cari Mora” is supposed to be a “totally hairless” German named Hans-Peter Schneider who is determined to get the gold and Cari. He is definitely a nasty guy. His specialty is amputating women according to the sexual fetishes of his deranged clients around the world. (He does a little side business in organ trafficking, too, because apparently there are still Hannibal Lecters out there looking for snacks.) But once a rival notes that Hans-Peter looks like a penis wearing glasses, it is hard to reclaim the dark side.
Which is the central problem with “Cari Mora.” Despite all its ghastly goings-on, this creaky thriller constantly slips on banana peels of its own unintentional comedy. With his usual subtly, Harris notes that Hans-Peter gives off “a whiff of brimstone.” And early in the novel, Hans-Peter extols the convenience of his most prized possession: a liquid cremation machine, which, he brags, is so much more ecologically friendly than those dirty burning crematories. Even Anthony Hopkins would strain to make this gory goofiness frightening. If he ever gets arrested, this criminal mastermind can always plead criminal inanity.
A couple of sentimental side stories eventually lead off to nowhere, but we finally get a climactic confrontation between Hans-Peter and Cari Mora that suggests just how exciting the rest of this story could have been. In the same way, every so often, there is a passage of real stylistic richness like this description of one victim “sitting against the tree, buzzards on both his shoulders like the dark angels of his nature, mantling him with their black wings while they ate the soft parts of his face, his silvered canine teeth gleaming, getting the light all the time now.” I was hungry for much more of that lavish, gothic prose.
Toward the end of the novel, a man-eating crocodile in Biscayne Bay suffers a small bout of indigestion while passing one of the gangsters he ate. Readers of “Cari Mora” are likely to suffer similar but wholly temporary discomfort.
Ron Charles writes about books for the Washington Post.