Eight Books that Inspire Me #3: The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris

I'm looking at the books and authors that inspire me as both a writer and a reader. I've chosen eight of my favourite novels and they're presented in no particular order.

“Nothing makes us more vulnerable than loneliness except greed.”

First published in 1988, Thomas Harris' The Silence of the Lambs has become so absorbed into popular culture that, even today, the mere mention of 'fava beans' or a 'nice chianti' will almost inevitably spark a round of lip-sucking Hannibal Lecter impersonations.

Winner of a number of awards, including the Bram Stoker award for best novel, The Silence of the Lambs opens with FBI trainee Clarice Starling being sent to the local asylum for the criminally insane to speak with renowned forensic psychiatrist and serial killer, Dr Hannibal 'the Cannibal' Lecter. The FBI wants his assistance in the search for another serial killer, nicknamed Buffalo Bill, who has a penchant for kidnapping overweight women, starving them, then killing and partially skinning them. Delightful.

Lecter being as intelligent as he is murderous, quickly catches onto the FBI's intentions, and enters into a bargain with Clarice - he'll provide her with valuable information in exchange for her accounts of her troubled childhood.

As the novel progresses, a relationship sparks between the two, and although the bulk of the story has Clarice hunting down Buffalo Bill and eventually apprehending him (while old Hannibal escapes the asylum after eviscerating a guard, then skinning and wearing the face of another), it's their strange relationship that resonates.

It's not that Clarice sees Lecter as a father figure, far from it - she is very aware that he is a stone cold killer - and it's certainly not romantic (well, not until the sequel, 'Hannibal', and don't even get me started about that). It's more like an opportunity for Clarice to exorcise her demons in the world's most twisted therapy sessions. Meanwhile, Lecter becomes truly taken with Clarice. As a pure sociopath (the closest that profiler Will Graham can come to classifying him in 'Red Dragon', Lecter's first literary outing), his curiosity and tenderness towards her is both compelling and horribly unsettling.

Thomas Harris - the face of Santa, the mind of a serial killer.

Thomas Harris - the face of Santa, the mind of a serial killer.

Thomas Harris is an astounding thriller writer. With The Silence of the Lambs, he weaves an intricate and intelligent web that is tense and terrifying. His psychological profiling of both of the book's killers is detailed and frighteningly credible - just think of real life killers like Ed Gein and Jeffrey Dahmer, and neither Dr Lecter nor Buffalo Bill seem out of place beside them.

By far my favourite element of his novel is FBI trainee herself, Clarice Starling. She's a wonderfully complex character. On one hand she's smart and savvy, blessed with youth, intuition and fierce ambition, while on the other she's detached from the world and, haunted by the memories of a frankly crappy childhood, has difficulty in forming personal relationships. On paper it sounds like it could all descend into cliché, but Harris pulls it off sensitively, giving his heroine a sense of justice and empowerment. Surrounded by FBI colleagues who seem perplexed by this young female rookie trespassing in their man's world, it's Clarice Starling who works out the identity of Buffalo Bill, and it's Clarice Starling who stops him in his tracks.

Interesting fact: Hannibal Lecter's immortal line, 'I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice chianti' was changed for film audiences. In the book, he actually says, 'I ate his liver with some fava beans and a big Amarone.'

Do you love The Silence of the Lambs? Do you prefer the book or the film? What are your favourite scenes?