My skin was crawling by Page 7.
It’s been 13 years since Thomas Harris last published a novel, but in Cari Mora the creator of Hannibal Lecter shows us he still knows how to send ice down our spines.
Four of the five previous novels by Harris, a former journalist, feature Lecter, the fiendishly brilliant serial killer and sometime cannibal. Two of those books, Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs, changed the paradigm for thrillers with their frightening journeys inside the minds of serial killers, and they remain two of the scariest books I’ve ever read.
Cari Mora has an all-new cast of characters and is set primarily in Miami Beach, where the very private Harris reportedly lives. The title is the name of its main character, a 25-year-old refugee from Colombia with a harrowing backstory.
“At the age of eleven,” Harris writes, “Cari had been taken from her village at gunpoint and conscripted into FARC, the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia.” After five years as a child soldier, Cari escapes — at terrible cost.
Now she is “staying in the U.S. by the skin of her teeth with a Temporary Protected Status. The U.S. president could cancel everyone’s TPS at any moment in a fit of pique, if the president knew what a TPS was.”
Cari has many skills — among them the ability to assemble, lock and load an AK-47 in 45 seconds — but what she really wants is to go to veterinary school and buy a little house of her own, with a mango tree in the yard.
In the meantime, to support herself and several family members, she works multiple jobs. The most important one (for the purposes of the plot) is her position as caretaker at a beachfront mansion that once belonged to infamous Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar.
In real life, Escobar did own a waterfront Miami Beach mansion in the 1980s that was confiscated by the U.S. government. After passing through several owners, the house was razed in 2016, and during demolition two safes were found hidden under its floors. One was stolen; the property owners kept the other but reportedly have not yet opened it. (The lot is currently on the market for $15.9 million.)
In Harris’ fictional version, there’s a rumor that Escobar buried treasure beneath the house: $25 million in gold bars.
That rumor is enough to draw two treasure hunters, and both of them need Cari’s help, since she knows the house and its considerable quirks. One is a powerful crime lord called Don Ernesto, who lives in Baranquilla, Colombia, but has a long reach.
The other is a Paraguayan named Hans-Peter Schneider. He’s “tall and pale, totally hairless,” a specialist in sexual trafficking for customers with particularly depraved tastes, although he’ll do just about anything for money.
When he first sees Cari, he thinks, “It would be a waste to throw her away. With those interesting scars he could get a lot for her. Maybe $100,000 ... that’s with all her limbs and no tattoos. If he had to customize her for top dollar, with the downtime, it would be more.”
If you’re getting a whiff of Hannibal here (that’s the point on Page 7 when my skin began to crawl), you’re right. Cari is introduced to Hans-Peter as the new renter of the house, and her reaction is elemental: “But when Cari shook his hand in the kitchen, she caught a whiff of brimstone off him. Like the smell of a burning village with dead inside the houses.”
Hans-Peter and his “jailbird” crew claim they’ll be shooting a movie in the house, but Cari doesn’t believe it for a minute, even before they start using a jackhammer on the floors.
She’s already friendly with Don Ernesto’s Miami crew, who have a certain honor among thieves (and who are all a little in love with Cari). They come to scope out Hans-Peter, and one of them, an old man named Benito who actually worked for Escobar back in the day, is standing in the yard when a spot near the seawall collapses.
Thinking fast, Benito pokes his cellphone into the hole to take photos that reveal a cave carved under the patio by the water. Under the house’s foundation is a “shiny cube larger than a refrigerator. ... Beside the cube, at water’s edge, were a human skull and the back half of a dog.”
The race to claim what’s in the safe — after figuring out how to get past its lethal security systems and whatever toothy creature is lurking in the water outside the cave’s mouth — kicks into high gear, leaving a bloody wake.
Harris builds the plot skillfully, with violence and betrayal punctuated by moments of calm and reminiscence. The contest for the gold turns into a fight for survival that rockets to the final pages.
Cari Mora is a pulse-pounding thriller, and Cari is an engagingly badass character. But is Hans-Peter a next-gen Hannibal? Alas, no. He’s certainly dreadful, sadistic and relentless.
But he just doesn’t have Lecter’s complexity and intelligence, his sophistication and startling contrasts — Hannibal was a character who could repel and seduce at once, and that was what made him so deeply, unforgettably creepy. It’s not just the liver, it’s the nice Chianti.
Contact Colette Bancroft at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.
By Thomas Harris
Grand Central, 320 pages, $29