Reviewed by Basil Ransome-Davies
The day my review copy of Cari Mora arrived I spent the afternoon strolling on Morecambe’s splendid promenade. The view across the Bay from the Naples of the North is elevating even in dull weather. Hitting Morrisons for a light shop, as you do, I was overwhelmed at the entrance by multiple stacked copies of Cari Mora for a tenner – half the jacket price. What precisely is the promotional nexus between publishers and supermarket chains I do not know, but Morecambe is a culturally alive town and I can envisage this offer (Cari Mora was £20 on Amazon at the time) being snapped up.
Whether the dedicated Harris fan will like it is another matter. A quick survey of critical and reader reviews discloses a bottom-heavy spread of opinion with a strong freight of disappointment. Publishers Weekly was sniffy and a rather smartass review in the Washington Post sneered that ‘this creaky thriller constantly slips on banana peels of its own unintentional comedy’. Are the negatives because this is the author’s first novel since Hannibal Rising (2006), a small eternity in which readers inevitably foster personal expectations and appetites, and it does not feature Hannibal Lecter? Or because he is off-song, behind the beat, a declining talent?
One complaint has been that the opening chapters which foreground the sulphurous figure of Hans-Peter Schneider – hi-energy, packed with bad faith, hideous deaths and monstrous revelations – feed into a more varied and reflective narrative that dissipates the intensity of the opening. Like any devotee of the dark side I always enjoy violent bloodshed, cruel betrayal, ulterior motives, ironies of fate and so forth, but having digested at the start an ample portion of these plus the announcement of some generic plotlines, (the ‘ticking bomb’, the machinations of rival gangs, the dying man with a vital secret) I found myself appreciating other qualities, one of which is humour.
For example: if you’ve ever eaten snails, and they tasted of more than their garlic and butter dressing, lucky you. To my delight. the fugitive flavour of gastropods furnishes the basis of a comic sequence (chapter 29) in Cari Mora. At a small fish cannery in Colombia Don Ernesto, the novel’s godfather-figure, is ‘helping with a start-up’, the marketing of inferior local products as French snails. An ad man displays samples of labels for ‘Fine Escargots’ decorated with classic French motifs – the Eiffel Tower, a chateau, etc. A ‘distinguished gourmand and food critic’ but implicitly a lush, Alejandro, has been recruited for a comparison tasting of the real things and the Colombian fakes (designated as from Provence and Brittany respectively). Alejandro prefers the genuine snails, but only just. He has detected hints of Chlorox in the others, albeit he prefers their ‘insistent’ flavour. What he doesn’t know is that they have been created by a machine, ‘ornate and nickel-plated’, designed to stamp out ‘snails’ from dead rats. As Don Ernesto proudly declaims, ‘It has been making snails since the time of Escoffier. Another template for making cat meat came with it at no extra charge. Some people think gato approximates snail even better than these organic rodents do.’
So much for food labelling, chlorination, organic protein, gastro-snobbery, gourmet pretensions, the hectic start-up economy and the prodigiously versatile interests of senior gangsters. That’s not unintentional comedy. It’s satire. What’s more, Thomas can write in a further register distinct from his gruesome performances, that of empathy and compassion. Chapter 17 introduces Detective Sergeant Terry `Robles (inactive), thirty-six, of Miami-Dade Homicide’. He is inactive because he is recovering from a drive-by shooting at his home that injured him and his wife, Daniela. Severely brain-damaged, she is a resident at Palmyra, ‘the best assisted-living facility in the Southeast’. When Robles visits her with their dachshund, Sally. She is unaware of her condition and does not recognise him.
‘I know you, don’t I? I’m sure we are friends.’
‘Yes, Daniela. We are friends. How are you? Are you happy? Are you sleeping okay?’
‘Yes, I’m very happy. Remind me, do you work here?
‘No, Daniela, I’m your husband. I’m glad you’re happy. And I love you. This is your dog, Sally. She loves you too.’
‘Mr….Mr. Thank you for your good wishes, but I’m afraid…’ Daniela looked off into the distance.
The plain, understated prose, a light-year away from the high-octane rhetoric of the Hannibal series, squeezes the recollection of their lost intimacy, which they cannot share, between the lines; the tone of restrained, gentle courtesy substitutes for the passion and bitterness only he can feel, and must suppress. His presence means no more to him than the company of an elderly long-term fellow-resident, Hector.
Throughout the savage, bloodthirsty contest to retrieve the millions in gold of deceased drug baron Pablo Escobar, sunk beneath his waterfront house in Miami its caretaker, Cari Mora, finds herself caught between divergent interests. The house is already freaky enough, stuffed with bizarre souvenirs and occasionally rented for porn movies; now she has to manoeuvre carefully. Her own c.v. is horrific. It includes forced service as a child soldier with FARC in her native Colombia. She is vulnerable in the US as a refugee immigrant with only a ‘Temporary Protected’ visa. It’s hard for her to find a proactive role. Luckily, her very experience of extreme situations and her mother-wit put enough iron in her soul to navigate among the thuggish lowlifes and egomaniac criminal bosses she has to consort with. So she is, in the end, her c.v. It defines her yet empowers her. What else are résumés for? If she is not fully characterised as an individual – it’s not Harris’s forte – her eponymous status signals a dilemma, often a cruel and tantalising one, that has grown more urgent during the rule of Trump.
If Cari is partly a Starling-equivalent, Schneider is the homicidal psychopath-in-chief with his liquid cremation apparatus and surgical mutilation of living bodies for the specialised sexual tastes of perverts, a fate he intends for Cari. He still may seem a reduction, a kind of ‘Hannibal lite’ (the Guardian reviewer’s description) and the absent Grand Guignol original may be missed by true believers, but there’s plenty else going on in this novel. It’s not always true that there’s no show without Punch.
Before retirement Dr Basil Ransome-Davies taught American Literature & Film Studies at a number of institutions, finally at Edge Hill University. He is also a prizewinning poet & prose author & a recidivist crime fiction addict. He lives in Lancaster, walks for physical & mental health & visits France & Spain as often as possible.
Thomas Harris, Cari Mora, (William Heinemann, 2019). 978-1785152207, 308 pp., hardback.BUY at Blackwell’s via our affiliate link.