There's a gentle heart of gold beneath all the blood in this action-heavy thriller, writes Sue de Groot
Published in the Sunday Times (30/06/2019)
Cari Mora ***
Thomas Harris, William Heineman, R290
Reviewers have not been kind to Cari Mora, Thomas Harris's first novel since Hannibal Rising, which was published 13 years ago. It's true that the title sounds like the brand name of a rucksack, the structure reads like the script for a B-grade action movie, and the archvillain is a pastiche of sadism and psychopathy with none of Dr Lecter's wit or occasional flashes of compassion, but there is still much to like about this story.
Cari Mora, the eponymous heroine, shares her name with a Colombian saint whose likeness is painted on a box full of gold hidden in a sea cave beneath a Miami house that once belonged to druglord Pablo Escobar.
The house, used for a time by producers of horror films, is filled with creepy props: mannequins and monsters and even a real electric chair from a prison museum.
Cari, a young Colombian refugee living in Miami under a tenuous temporary protection order, is the only housekeeper not bothered by all this frightening paraphernalia, but then she has enough horrors in her own past to keep her awake at night.
When the house is rented by Hans-Peter Schneider - the one-dimensional villain of the piece, who is hairless and has a predilection for folk songs - Cari is faced with a worse threat than deportation. Schneider has found out about the gold and needs her help with the logistics of extracting it. Cari, as well as being good with people and animals, is well versed in electric circuitry and advanced weaponry. But she is also (naturally) very beautiful, and Schneider, who runs a sideline business supplying "modified" women to people with unimaginably horrific tastes in pleasure, has other plans for her.
Enter the heroes, a band of thieves with golden hearts connected to a not-quite-as-golden-hearted gang lord. They rescue Cari and a foul-mouthed cockatoo and hatch their own plans to get the gold.
There are strong elements of mythology in this tale, with its heroes and demons and a golden reward locked away behind layers of dangerous booby traps. But there is something else here too: somewhere beneath the thrill-a-minute surface lies a sense of Miami and all its denizens, a juxtaposition of danger and safety, gentleness and violence.
These contrasts are seen not only in Cari's life but in the city and its environs. It is a place of mild weather and seductive scenery, populated by saltwater crocodiles and ruthless criminals.
Cari is at her most beguiling and believable when not grappling with gangsters. She works at a bird rescue centre where she stitches up injured pelicans and communes with other feathered creatures. Animals pop up elsewhere too: a manatee and her calf surface next to a boat full of bandits, just to breathe, be safe and go away again.
Despite all the gore, the cardboard nature of the sinister Schneider and the unrelenting barrage of adrenaline-packed danger, something about Cari Mora and her love for gentle creatures tugs and catches.
Her heart's desire is to have a home of her own where all the surfaces are clean, where she can walk barefoot and tend to fruit-bearing trees. In this and in her interactions with ordinary people - there is one very funny encounter with neighbourhood children and three wise turtles - Cari comes to life and rescues the story from humdrum thrillerdom.
In an interview, Harris said that he wanted to write about the insecure lives led by the many refugees in his home town of Miami. He also wanted to write about the bird rescue centre where he has worked as a volunteer for 20 years (the director found out only recently that Harris was famous).
Perhaps he should have written a different sort of book, a simple story about a tough but vulnerable young woman and her work with birds. But would anyone have been satisfied with such an offering from the creator of Hannibal Lecter? Probably not @deGrootS1