Title: The Silence of the Lambs (Hannibal Lecter #2)
Author: Thomas Harris
My Rating: ★★★1/2
Summary: “A serial murderer known only by a grotesquely apt nickname — Buffalo Bill — is stalking women. He has a purpose, but no one can fathom it, for the bodies are discovered in different states. Clarice Starling, a young trainee at the FBI Academy, is surprised to be summoned by Jack Crawford, chief of the Bureau’s Behavioral Science section. Her assignment: to interview Dr. Hannibal Lecter — Hannibal the Cannibal — who is kept under close watch in the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane.”
*I usually don’t spoil anything in my reviews, but I sort of did here so I could talk about a few things. Also, I figured a ton of people have seen the movie so I’m not really spoiling anything anyway*
I went into The Silence of the Lambs knowing what would happen, since I’ve seen the movie multiple times, but was still excited to read it and see how it differed from the movie. I have a lot of issues with the plot, but grant Harris some leniency given he released the book in 1988. (Leniency that I will not grant to J.K Rowling, because she’s writing her transphobic horror novels in 2020, with the intent to cause harm). I will address these issues a little later, but for now I’m going to jump into some things I liked.
I have always liked Clarice a lot, so I really enjoyed getting to see more of her internal thoughts throughout the novel. In fact, I found I liked Clarice in the book better overall, which is not to say I didn’t like Jodie Foster’s portrayal of her, but Harris’ Clarice is a bit more assertive and funny. And I love nothing more than a strong female character. I also really enjoyed her friendship with her roommate, Ardelia Mapp. She is in the movie, but way less. In the book, she’s funny and reminds Clarice to take care of herself. Also, the ending of the book would have been a million times better if they ended up together instead of Clarice with some dude the reader barely knows anything about. (I am not the only one who thinks this – there are fanfictions about this ship!) To be fair, maybe it’s just because Clarice was played by Jodie Foster, but she just doesn’t seem straight to me. But of course that would never happen, because Thomas Harris never included good LGBT characters in his stories, he just made them queer in order to make them seem even more sinister and perverse. Fun fun fun. Thanks for that.
One thing Harris does well is depict the everyday sexism Clarice inevitably faces being a women in a male-dominated field. People consistently don’t want to listen to her because she’s a woman or they talk down to her. When she goes to the garage to follow Hannibal’s lead, reporters find out and do not treat her like the FBI Agent in-training she is.
And all the time the men were talking to her, constantly, gently. ‘We won’t touch anything. We’re pros, you don’t have to worry. The cops will let us in anyway. It’s all right, honey.’p.55
Harris points this out in more direct ways, like when Chilton flirts with Clarice when taking her to Hannibal’s cell. She is there for work and should be treated as though she is.
Like in Red Dragon, the reader gets to see into the mind of the murderer, so Buffalo Bill in this case. Having longer scenes in his perspective also allows for more time with Catherine as a character. She is so incredibly brave and her scenes really highlight that. She was kidnapped after being tricked into helping Buffalo Bill, which is especially sad, since he takes advantage of the fact that she is helpful to strangers. Huge caveat to loving Catherine Martin’s character: Harris made a few scenes weirdly sexual, clearly showcasing that men sometimes just do not have any idea how to write women like regular people. In one scene, Catherine is trying to plan an escape and considers having sex with Buffalo Bill in order to escape.
Would it be better to fuck him first, fuck him as many times as he could do it and wear him out? She knew if she could get her legs around his neck she could send him home to Jesus in about a second and a half.p.265
I promise you that no woman in Catherine’s situation is thinking about the logistics of seducing and having sex with her kidnapper in order to escape. There’s also this gem…
Catherine Baker Martin’s tears spread hot on her cheeks and fell, plucking at the front of her jumpsuit, soaking through, warm on her breasts, and she believed that she would surely die.p.269
Now to address the elephant in the room: The Silence of the Lambs is transphobic. Buffalo Bill is skinning women in order to build a female skin-suit. Harris was clearly inspired by the real-life horror of Ed Gein who did this, who had a strange, incestuous obsession with his mother. Harris has insisted that Buffalo Bill is not actually trans, just as the characters in the novel do. However, there is no other logical explanation given really. Hannibal says Buffalo Bill “covets,” but that doesn’t really prove his coveting isn’t due to wanting to be a woman. Additionally, Buffalo Bill has given himself hormones, grown out his hair and calls himself “Mommy” all the time when talking to his dog, Precious. Making trans people seem like crazy murderers is awful. This plot would mayyyybe be more acceptable if there was tons of trans characters on screen and in books, but there aren’t. Having a classic horror novel and movie be focused on the horror of trans people is not exactly the representation the LGBTQ+ community wants. I think it is still okay to enjoy the story, however. I enjoyed reading the book and will likely watch the movie again sometime. I just think it is important to be critical of the media we consume.
One other issue I had with the novel was the pretty much constant body-shaming of women. Buffalo Bill targets larger women so his suit is large enough for his body. This means all of the women Clarice and investigators are looking at are overweight, and they seemed judgmental of that. There were also a lot of assumptions made by Clarice that these women must have had low self-esteem and been looking to prove themselves to others. It’s a dumb stereotype that annoyed me every time it showed up. But Harris doesn’t write the best female characters in general anyway, so I can’t say I was shocked.
Overall, I really enjoyed reading The Silence of the Lambs despite the issues I had with it. I also reviewed the first book in the series, Red Dragon and you can read that here.
Thanks so much for reading!