Sunday, March 7, 2021


CARI MORA by Thomas Harris (William Heinemann, 2019)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

Twenty-five million dollars in cartel gold lies hidden beneath a mansion on the Miami Beach waterfront. Ruthless men have tracked it for years. Leading the pack is Hans-Peter Schneider. Driven by unspeakable appetites, he makes a living fleshing out the violent fantasies of other, richer men.

Cari Mora, caretaker of the house, has escaped from the violence in her native country. She stays in Miami on a wobbly Temporary Protected Status, subject to the iron whim of ICE. She works at many jobs to survive. Beautiful, marked by war, Cari catches the eye of Hans-Peter as he closes in on the treasure. But Cari Mora has surprising skills, and her will to survive has been tested before.

Readers had been waiting for well over a decade for a new book from Thomas Harris, the man who changed the face of crime fiction with his twisted serial killer thrilelrs RED DRAGON and SILENCE OF THE LAMBS thrillers in the 1980s. 

When CARI MORA arrived in 2019, many didn't quite know what to think. In many ways it was nothing like the Hannibal Lecter tales millions of readers (and even more viewers) had come to know and love, even if that series itself veered quite starkly post-Lambs. Several critics savaged CARI MORA, while there were the occasional ones (eg Ali Karim) who were big fans of the new book. 

Candidly, I fell somewhere in between. For me CARI MORA was very different to its predecessors, while still being enjoyable in several ways if far from the all-time classic bar Harris had set in the past. 

An early scene: a man sings on a stool in his shower room in a coastal warehouse in North Miami. As water cascades from his hairless body, his set list covers being happy in the rain, German folk songs about sauerkraut and beets, and self-made jingles about pouring his troubles down the drain.

The man sees himself reflected in the window of his latest toy. Inside, his latest ‘troubles’, the body of a young woman, is slowly dissolving in lye water. Soon she’ll be poured down the drain.

Liquid cremation instead of cannibalism; CARI MORA may have been Thomas Harris’s first book in 13 years (and only his third in the three decades since SILENCE OF THE LAMBS), but his fondness for exploring human depravity in its vilest forms certainly remained. 

Hans-Peter Schneider is the psycho in the shower, a German-speaking Paraguayan national (subtext: a descendant of Nazis who fled after the war?) who caters to clients with monstrous fetishes. He's a human trafficker who mutilates woman for money, or harvests their organs. Vilest of the vile. 

In CARI MORA, Hans-Peter has set his sights on a treasure hunt. Legend has it that $25 million in gold bars lie idle in a booby-trapped safe hidden in a Miami villa once owned by Pablo Escobar. Hans-Peter hires mercenaries to pose as a film crew, rent the villa, and extract the loot, but he’s not the only one in the hunt. A Colombian drug cartel also wants Escobar’s legacy. 

The villa’s caretaker is Cari Mora, a scarred beauty who’s seen plenty of horrors. Forced to be a child soldier by FARC rebels, Cari now hopes for a quiet life in Miami, caring for her extended family, learning to be a vet, and solidifying her visa status to avoid deportation.

Inevitably, carnage ensues as Hans-Peter’s henchmen and the cartel crew try to safely extract the loot, and Hans-Peter turns his eye towards the housekeeper. The past four Harris novels have all been adapted for screen and CARI MORA certainly has a cinematic feel, but in this case the ideal director may be someone like Quentin Tarantino, given the blend of stark violence and the rather absurd.

For me, I felt like Harris almost had his tongue planted in his cheek during CARI MORA. There were little nods to his past classics here and there, while at the same time he'd created a sun-struck heist thriller that veered more towards Elmore Leonard or Carl Hiassen than any gritty and grimy psychological exploration of the minds of serial killers and the detectives who hunt them.

Perhaps because I just took CARI MORA for what it was, rather than what I hoped it may be (going in with little to no expectations), I wasn't as disappointed as many other critics and readers. In fact, I found it a rather fun read in many ways. If a bit eye-rolling at times. CARI MORA rips along. 

Readers expecting a Lecter-level villain will be disappointed – Hans-Peter is repulsive without any of the cannibal psychiatrist’s chilling magnetism or charm. But in Cari herself Harris has created another fascinating and formidable heroine. She's the character that elevates the story, which is also seasoned with issues close to Harris’s heart (immigration and refugees, Florida birdlife). I get the feeling Harris was indulging himself a bit, exploring things that interested him with no thought of legacy. 

CARI MORA was something unexpected from a man who influenced a genre. Not frightening, but fun.

Craig Sisterson is a lapsed Kiwi lawyer who now lives in London and writes for magazines and newspapers in several countries. He’s interviewed hundreds of crime writers and talked about the genre on national radio, top podcasts, and onstage at festivals on three continents. Craig's been a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards, McIlvanney Prize, is founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards and co-founder of Rotorua Noir. His book SOUTHERN CROSS CRIME, was published in 2020.

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