There is something rather clever about staying dead. Writer-director Satoshi Kon died unexpectedly in his mid-40s after having created no more than half a dozen intelligent and atmospheric thrillers like “Perfect Blue” and “Paranoia Agent.” The result? He would never go on to have a disappointing career. Likewise, Jim Morrison’s romantically early demise ensured that there would never be a bad Doors album–at least not with Unca Jimbo’s name on it.
The best part–if you’re into life–is you don’t even have to go that far. You can just wander off like a mad recluse, ala J. D. Salinger. Simply write some short stories and a great American novel, then go into self-enforced retirement, spinning a top sheet out of your fortune and infamy, possibly inspiring a few unhinged murderers along the way.
For a while, this appeared to be the strategy of Thomas Harris, the American writer who created the unforgettable serial killer Hannibal Lecter. As of last year, Harris had only written five novels, four of which featured Lecter and three of which I had read, all of them very literate and engaging thrillers. Even if the other two books were just OK, he would still be an above average, even great, pulp writer, very much in the vein of Ira Levin. And that had been his status since 2006, when “Hannibal Rising” was released (that’s one I haven’t read).
All that changed this year when Harris released “Cari Mora” and interrupted the formula. The new novel is still a thriller, but it does not feature Lecter, which all his novels have since the Reagan administration. So we’ve already drifted from that. Have we drifted from the top shelf quality of literate pulp thrillers? That’s a little harder to answer.
“Cari Mora’s” titular character is a former child soldier who fled Colombia and is now living–illegally–in Miami. She does odd jobs that keep her under the judicial radar, but they also throw her into the presence of characters that are either sketchy or somewhere south of sketchy. She has been tasked with house sitting a beachfront rental property whose central occupant is $25 million in gold in the basement. Two rival factions want it, and Mora finds herself in the middle and squaring off against one faction’s enforcer: the chilling psychopath Hans-Peter Schneider.
“Cari Mora” is, in a single word, disappointing. It’s not that it’s bad. There are a number of things that are quite good about the novel. Harris has a gift for creating fascinating characters, and many of them stand out here. I’m not just talking about Mora, who is a sufficiently sturdy female lead. She has standard action girl qualities, but they feel natural given her background and she has believable emotions to balance them and everything.
I’m also not just talking about Schneider, who could have just been a junior Hannibal Lecter, but maintains his own eccentric quirks and bad habits and suggestive past. I’m also talking about an old woman in a neighborhood Mora wants to move into who communicates with her sister across the street by whistling. Characters like that cement the dark central world and make the whole feel real.
Also, the novel is definitely descriptively deep enough, with Harris’s journalistic background on full display. He knows Miami Beach and he knows blasting caps, and all of it ought to fit perfectly naturally into the narrative. But it doesn’t.
The problem is that these elements aren’t strung together well. The pacing is all over the place. Sometimes the novel moves quite fast, but it often it does this by sacrificing coherency. Rather than glide, it jumps, and readers can be left wondering how exactly we got here.
Perhaps accordingly, some of those characters seemed tacked on or incomplete. For example, there’s a cop who is partially motivated by a grudge against one of the factions seeking the treasure. His character gets somewhat developed, until the narrative forgets that his background exists, and he only gets brought back to the foreground when he’s needed.
It almost feels like Harris wanted the character to be more, a love interest for Cari perhaps, but then dropped the whole thing. That makes sense for Cari’s character, as she could not just be handed love by a boilerplate plot, but it makes the cop’s presence in the book overdrawn and confusing. Why not give his time in the book instead to build up one of Cari’s criminal counterparts, who are already established? or the crocodile?
Maybe the whole book can all be summed up by the crocodile. A character was partially eaten partway through the book, and his death seemed awfully crocodilian, so I kept expecting a crocodile to emerge from the narrative sea. And it did. And it was great. That croc was a real monster. It had its own chapter and everything. And then, that was it. This wasn’t even the end, so the crocodile wasn’t an agent of fate or finality or at least the climax. And the crocodile didn’t die, so it could have come back. It just didn’t.
Look, I don’t want to tell you how to write your thriller, but it seems to me if you have a saltwater crocodile with a taste for human flesh, and you have both the researching and descriptive powers of Thomas Harris, you shouldn’t just forget about the crocodile. But that’s what this book is. All of the old potential is still on display, but it has little of the old payoff.
The visual centerpiece of the novel is a statue of the Virgin Mary, located in the basement of the house that contains the stockpile of gold. In a moment it suggests guilt, storms and salvation, the complex cultural stew of Miami, even the name of our heroine. It’s a nice central image. It’s just too bad it’s not surrounded by a more coherent story.