“The Silence of the Lambs”

sotl 01


[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

Do I have to introduce this one? I think most people know a thing or two about the basic set-up, even if they’ve never read the book/seen the film. But just in case:

Thomas Harris’s 1988 sequel to 1981’s Red Dragon (which introduced the character of Dr. Hannibal Lecter in a minor role). This book expands Lecter’s mythology and, boosted by Anthony Hopkins’s portrayal in the 1991 film, established a powerful, enduring figure in popular culture.

3 out of 5 stars.

The Plot:

FBI trainee Clarice Starling seeks help from imprisoned cannibalistic serial killer (and former psychiatrist) Hannibal Lecter. He claims to be able to assist in tracking down a murderer known as Buffalo Bill before Bill finishes off his latest victim, a Senator’s daughter.

This entry ended up longer than I expected, mostly because of the amount of references. Some of it is because of Lecter’s high taste, some it it from pop culture references before my time.

[1] Harris has an interesting stylistic tic of switching to the present tense, especially when discussing Hannibal Lecter. It brings life to the characters, makes it seem as though they live and exist outside of the narrative. Also allows scenes to play out cinematically. Harris sometime switches between the two tenses in the same paragraph, which is very unconventional, but a worthy experiment in style. I’m not sure if it’s necessary, but it does give him a unique voice. And unless you’re looking for it, it becomes a subconscious element. A few examples from the first pages:

“Who’s the subject?”

“The psychiatrist – Dr. Hannibal Lecter,” Crawford said.

A brief silence follows the name, always, in any civilized gathering.



Dr. Frederick Chilton, fifty-eight, administrator of the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, has a long, wide desk upon which there are no hard or sharp objects. Some of the staff call it “the moat.” Other staff members don’t know what the word moat means. Dr. Chilton remained seated behind his desk when Clarice Starling came into the office.



They had passed through two more gates and left the natural light behind. Now they were beyond the wards where inmates can mix together, down in the region where there can be no windows and no mixing. The hallway lights are covered with heavy grids, like the lights in the engine room of ships. Dr. Chilton paused beneath one.


[2] Reference:

His voice was both high and hoarse. She was reminded of Aldo Ray.



Aldo Ray (1926 – 1991) was an American actor with a distinctively raspy voice.

[3] Again with the past/present tense. It’s interesting. Do any other authors play with tenses like this?

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.


[4] Reference:

“It’s what the thief who had been promised Paradise really got, when they took the paschal lamb away.”



noun – (1) a lamb sacrificed at Passover

(2) Christ

[5] The back-and-forth between Starling and Lecter create the strongest scenes in the book. (Jonathan Demme was smart enough to recognize this when directing the film.)

“Oh, Officer Starling, do you think you can dissect me with this blunt little tool?”

“No. I think you can provide some insight and advance this study.”

“And what possible reason could I have to do that?”


“About what?”

“About why you’re here. About what happened to you.”

“Nothing happened to me, Officer Starling. I happened. You can’t reduce me to a set of influences. You’ve given up good and evil for behaviorism, Officer Starling. You’ve got everybody in moral dignity pants – nothing is every anybody’s fault.”


[6] Reference:

“Back in your room, you have a string of gold add-a-beads and you feel an ugly little thump when you look at how tacky they are now, isn’t that so? All those tedious thank-yous, permitting all that sincere fumbling, getting all sticky once for every bead.”



Popular in the early 80s. A gold chain which could have beads added to it. Used to honor and celebrate occasions. (Lecter is insinuating to Starling that she received a bead from each man she’s slept with.)

[7] Reference:

Poet John Donne is quoted twice in the book: on the introduction page (“Devotions”) and in Lecter’s letter to Crawford on page 42 (from “A Fever”).

John Donne (1572 – 1631) was an English poet and cleric in the Church of England. He is considered the pre-eminent representative of the metaphysical poets.

[8] Reference:

“The Sunday divorce flight from La Guardia to Juarez.”


Someone posted a question about this on Yahoo Answers (not the greatest arena, but it’s all I could find) and not received any response. I’m assuming it’s a reference to people bailing on marriages by flying to Mexico (?) but the way it’s presented makes it seem like a popular saying. This ring any bells for anyone?

[9] Vocabulary:

The sundered chattels of divorce.



noun – (in general use) a personal possession

            (Law) an item of property other than real estate

[10] Vocabulary:

“Officer Starling, that was a lie. The first one you’ve told me. A triste occasion, Truman would say.”

“President Truman?”

“Never mind.”



adjective – sad; wistful.

(And I believe the Truman he means is Truman Capote.)

[11] Awkwardly constructed:

He had done it five times that they knew of, had Bill. At least five times, and probably more, over the past ten months he had abducted a woman, killed her and skinned her.


[12] Another difficult-to-parse sentence:

The indignities the victim suffers, the exposure to the elements and to casual eyes, angers you if your job permits you anger.


[13] Vocabulary:

Reflected many times in the glass panes of cabinets holding trochars and packages of Rock-Hard Cavity Fluid.



trocar (variant spelling is trochar)

noun – a surgical instrument with a three-sided cutting point enclosed in a tube, used for withdrawing fluid from a body cavity.

[14] Reference:

“The Mengel case, remember that? Scalped that woman?”



A real case. Alex J. Mengel murdered a woman, scalped her, and used her hair as a wig in early 1985 (also killed a police officer).

[15] Reference to Garrett Hobbs on page 120: this is a Harris-verse character, not a real case. Hobbs is the serial killer who Will Graham (the main detective in Red Dragon) killed before the events of the book began.

[16] Vocabulary:

The double vent and skirts gave it a peplum effect.



noun – a short flared, gathered, or pleated strip of fabric, attached at the waist of a woman’s jacket, dress, or blouse to create a hanging frill or flounce.

[17] Reference:

She felt the ache of his whole yellow-smiling Sen-Sen lonesome life.



A breath freshener. Discontinued in 2013.

[18] Reference:

“Dr. Chilton says Sammie (…) is a hebephrenic schizoid.”




noun – a form of chronic schizophrenia involving disordered thought, inappropriate emotions, hallucinations, and bizarre behavior.

[19] Reference:

Eldridge Cleaver gives us the parable of the 3-in-One Oil, and we find that useful.”



Eldridge Cleaver: American writer and political activist (1935 – 1998). Early leader of the Black Panther Party. Wrote a book, Soul on Ice, while in prison. In one essay, he told a story about comparing the Holy Trinity to 3-in-One Oil.

[20] Reference:

“That peculiar goatish odor is trans-3-methyl-2 hexenoic acid. Remember it, it’s the smell of schizophrenia.”



In the 1960s, a few scientists believed schizophrenia could be diagnosed by smell after studying an institutionalized sample. Others were skeptical, believing there were other biological considerations in an institution, like bacteria in the environment. But a study was published near the end of the 60s stating the specific chemical make-up had been determined as trans-3-methyl-2 hexeoic acid (TMHA). (Article here about it.)

In 1973, a test of whether schizophrenics had more TMHA in their sweat found no relationship. A link between TMHA and schizophrenia is no longer accepted.

I’m surprised Harris would have Lecter say something like this in the eighties. By then, the theory had been dropped by most and Lecter is supposed to be a genius who stays current on scientific papers.

[21] Reference:

“Look at Titian’s Flaying of Marsyas before they send it back to Czechoslovakia. Wonderful for details, Titian – look at helpful Pan, bringing the bucket of water.”



Tiziano Vecelli (~1488 – 1576; known in English as Titian) was an Italian painter. The Flaying of Marsyas (also known as The Punishment of Marsyas) was painted around 1570 – 1576. It was Titain’s last finished work. In it, the subject being flayed (a satyr) is tied up by his feet. Several mythical figures watch, along with some animals. (It is a rather muddy, strange painting.) In the story the painting is based on, Marsyas challenged Apollo to a contest of music. He lost and his hide was taken. Many pieces of art (including sculptures and paintings) have used Marsyas as a subject.

[22] Reference:

“She recited the end of Thanatopsis to him.”



Poem by William Cullen Bryant (1794 – 1878), an American poet. Thanatopsis appears to be his most famous work, written when he was in his late teens/early twenties (?), though Bryant claimed not to remember where or when he wrote it. The poem looks over a life at the approach of death.

[23] Q: What does “quid pro quo” actually translate to? (p.151)

A: “Something for something”; “This for that.”

[24] I apologize for my fascination with this past/present tense switching (here, it’s mid-sentence). I can’t figure out if it’s good, but it’s intriguing.

She rolled the futon as tightly as she could and tied the roll with the towel. Standing on it, wobbly, reaching for the crack, she got her fingernails in it for balance and peered up into the light. Squinting into the glare. It’s a floodlight with a shade, hanging just a foot down into the pit, almost ten feet above her hand, it might as well be the moon and he was coming, the futon was wobbling, she scrabbling at the crack in the wall for balance.


[25] Here is a narrative shift acknowledging the wider world; universal truths. I never know when to drop these touches into my writing (or if I even should). Does this give us a better understanding of Starling or would Harris be better off letting us observe her at arm’s length? (Also, a Reference.)

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.



Cinzano: Italian brand of vermouth. The company manufactured several styles of ashtrays.


Dr. Lecter simply went away. He thought about something else – Gericault’s anatomical studies for The Raft of the Medusa.



Theodore Gericault (1791 – 1824) was a French painter and lithographer. The Raft of the Medusa, an oil painting of 1818-1819, is his most famous work. The painting shows the aftermath of the wreck of the French naval frigate Meduse, which ran aground in 1816. All but 15 of (at least) 147 aboard died before rescue; those who survived practiced cannibalism (an apt nod to Lecter’s interests). Gericault interviewed survivors, visited morgues, and made many preparatory sketches for the work.

[27] Vocabulary:

“Raspail’s appetites ran to the louche – he was covered with scars.”



adjective – disreputable or sordid in a rakish or appealing way.

[28] Reference:

“Rubin told me he once suffered from elephant ivory anthrax.”



Elephant ivory anthrax is contracted by breathing dust from grinding African ivory, usually for decorative handles. In the United States, it is a disease of knife-makers.



It’s difficult to find information about whether this exists. On Wikipedia’s Talk page for The Silence of the Lambs, someone has noted “Elephant ivory anthrax is a real disease; the name merely indicates that the pathogen was borne in the elephant’s tusk.” Still, Googling the term only brings links to questionable sites.

[29] Vocabulary:

There are thresholds to step over, lintels to duck.




noun – a horizontal support of timber, stone, concrete or steel across the top of a door or window.

[30] Lecter verbalizes “Ummm” a couple of times while speaking to Starling. Later in the book, she does it in conversation with Crawford and then to herself while searching Catherine Martin’s room (p.211).

I think Harris is trying to show that Lecter has had an effect and influence on Starling (however subliminal). In the next book, Hannibal, the relationship between the two is brought to a bizarre conclusion (the film took a different route) and I wanted to see if seeds of it were planted in this book. My conclusion? He creates a couple of links between them but not enough to justify the end he gives to Starling. Lecter is obviously drawn to her. He is the only person in the book who refers to her by her first name; he gives her useful advice; he says he won’t come after her unprovoked (“the world is more interesting with you in it”) but she doesn’t reciprocate beyond fear and fascination. I certainly don’t feel sparks flying.

[31] An attempt at tense action that fails:

The bucket seemed to be trying to nose the little dog away from the chicken. The poodle growled at the bucket and held on, straddling the handle, teeth firmly clamped on the bone. Suddenly, the bucket bumped the poodle over, off its feet, pushed it, it struggled to get up, bumped again, it struggled with the bucket, a back foot and haunch went off in the hole, its claws scrabbled frantically at the wood, the bucket sliding, wedging in the hole with the dog’s hindquarters and the little dog pulled free, the bucket slipping over the edge and plunging, the bucket escaping down the hole with the chicken bone.


The subject is too confused; sometimes Harris’s attention is on the bucket, sometimes the dog. The word “it” loses clear meaning, the rhythm of the prose is lost. Shorter sentence construction would have worked better.

[32] Reference:

He whistled a dramatic arrangement of “Begin the Beguine.”



Cole Porter song, introduced in 1935 in the Broadway musical Jubilee. Popular recorded version appears to be Artie Shaw’s from 1938.

[33] Reference:

The sound was any music at all. Right now it was “The Look of Love,” totally out of sync with the sprightly action.



Song composed by Burt Bacharach and Hal David. Sung by Dusty Springfield (1967). Stan Getz did the first recording, as an instrumental, in 1966.


It’s hard to accept that someone can understand you without wishing you well.


[35] Reference:

The palooka effect in his fine features was not pleasing.



noun – (North American; informal) a stupid, uncouth person; a lout.

            (North American; dated) an inferior or average prizefighter.

[36] Reference:

“You judge yourself with all the mercy of the dungeon scales at Threave.”



Threave Castle (built in the 1370s) is in Scotland. Has a bloody history, but seemingly not much different than many castles. I’m not sure why the dungeon scales at Threave would especially be noted for their lack of mercy. Literary reference?

All in all, The Silence of the Lambs is a swift, entertaining read.

The plot has a couple of far-too convenient elements: Lecter having met Buffalo Bill many years before through one of his own victims being the hardest to swallow. The plot could have worked without this link; Lecter is clever enough to look at the Buffalo Bill case and point Clarice in the correct direction. He could simply lie about knowing Bill’s identity when speaking to the Tennessee Senator.

The movie is a fantastic adaptation of the source material, one of those rare cases where it rises above. I’d recommend the movie first, then the book if you’re looking to fill in a couple edges of the story.

Next week: Part one of a two-part post on The Thin Red Line, continuing my unintended July theme of book versions of very good movies.


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