The Silence of the Lambs and the Surprise it Holds for Writers

If you haven’t read The Silence of The Lambs you are in for a treat.

I am going to assume you’ve seen the movie, right? Well, there’s a surprising element to the book, one that I had not expected when I read it.

Since reading it, something I did to study how Thomas Harris pulled off one of the best thrillers in modern times, I’ve become a little obsessed with it (does that happen to you?)

I re-watched the movie sometime late last year but I re-read the book about four times in the last twelve months. At first I wanted to look at the structure and characterisation but then the prose got me. I hadn’t expected that.

Here’s an example, the first time Clarice meets Dr. Hannibal Lecter.

Dr. Hannibal Lecter himself reclined on his bunk, perusing the Italian edition of Vogue. He held the loose pages in his right hand and put them beside him one by one with his left. Dr. Lecter has six fingers on his left hand. Clarice Starling stopped a little distance from the bars, about the length of a small foyer.

“Dr. Lecter.” Her voice sounded all right to her. He looked up from his reading. For a steep second she thought his gaze hummed, but it was only her blood she heard. “My name is Clarice Starling. May I talk with you?” Courtesy was implicit in her distance and her tone.

Dr. Lecter considered, his finger pressed against his pursed lips. Then he rose in his own time and came forward smoothly in his cage, stopping short of the nylon web without looking at it, as though he chose the distance.

She could see that he was small, sleek; in his hands and arms she saw wiry strength like her own.

“Good morning,” he said, as though he had answered the door. His cultured voice has a slight metallic rasp beneath it, possibly from disuse.

Dr. Lecter’s eyes are maroon and they reflect the light in pinpoints of red. Sometimes the points of light seem to fly like sparks to his center. His eyes held Starling whole.

The things to note there, apart from the fantastic last paragraph, are the words “foyer” and “as though he had answered the door.” Word choices we associate with someone paying a visit to a friend, not an FBI agent trying to get help from a serial killer in an asylum. There is also the curtesy they show each other.

There’s also this description of Lecter, later in the book.

Dr. Lecter wore the white asylum pajamas in his white cell. The only colors in the cell were his hair and eyes and his red mouth, in a face so long out of the sun it leached into the surrounding whiteness; his features seemed suspended above the collar of his shirt. He sat at his table behind the nylon net that kept him back from the bars. He was sketching on butcher paper, using his hand for a model. As she watched, he turned his hand over and, flexing his fingers to great tension, drew the inside of the forearm. He used his little finger as a shading stump to modify a charcoal line.

She came a little closer to the bars, and he looked up. For Starling every shadow in the cell flew into his eyes and widow’s peak.

Another example; Starling gets ready to interview him again, this time with time running out.

Starling walked up and down the linoleum of the shabby lounge far underground. She was the only brightness in the room. We rarely get to prepare ourselves in meadows or on graveled walks; we do it on short notice in places without windows, hospital corridors, rooms like this lounge with its cracked plastic sofa and Cinzano ashtrays, where the café curtains cover blank concrete. In rooms like this, with so little time, we prepare our gestures, get them by heart so we can do them when we’re frightened in the face of Doom. Starling was old enough to know that; she didn’t let the room affect her.

And finally, just a description of chicken feathers on a river.

Feathers rode on the thick brown water, curled feathers blown from the coops, carried on breaths of air that shivered the skin of the river.

The Silence of the Lambs is one of the best books I’ve ever read, hands down. It is well written, as the above examples show, it is tense and complicated and just… works.

I liked Red Dragon but have yet to read the sequels; Hannibal and Hannibal Rising. Have you?


5 thoughts on “The Silence of the Lambs and the Surprise it Holds for Writers”

  1. Hey Johann-
    Nice post. Coincidentally, I just re-read Silence (and Red Dragon) within the last few months, and watched the film versions. I’ve read both several times over the years and regard them, Silence especially, as virtual textbooks on thriller writing.
    I wouldn’t bother with Hannibal except out of curiosity…it felt like Harris deliberately driving his most famous creations into a ditch. Although some editions have a foreword by the author that’s quite worth reading.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Tom,

      Red Dragon is an excellent film as well, though I was much fonder of Silence, both the film and the book.

      And you’re right, Silence of the Lambs is a masterclass in thriller writing.


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