Crime Fiction: Cari Mora by Thomas Harris

(Editor’s note: This review comes from Ali Karim, the chief British correspondent for The Rap Sheet and the assistant editor of Shots. He would like to thank Charlotte Bush, of Penguin Random House UK, for making sure he was given an early read of Cari Mora.)

Despite this eagerly anticipated novel being unusually concise, as it would take no more than an afternoon curled up on a sofa to consume, it cannot properly be labeled a “one-sitting-read.” Like a bottle of Amarone della Valpolicella (one that has been aged at least 10 years), it needs to be sipped slowly, as the arrangement of words necessary to tell the story—and to paint pictures in the reader’s mind—is extraordinary. However, the horrors revealed as this narrative unfurls are troubling. The story cuts jaggedly into the mind,  leaving a scar, one that reverberates inside our consciousness like an echo, one that doesn’t decay like those we screamed into caves we explored as children. The cries and terrors we’re exposed to in this book will remain within the caverns of our mind, troubling us from time to time, whenever we recall its narrative.

Cari Mora (Grand Central) is the sixth published novel by former journalist Thomas Harris. Like his 1975 debut, Black Sunday, it is a standalone, so does not feature his singular character, the one torn from the coarse wooden floor of Le Théâtre du GrandGuignol, Dr. Hannibal Lecter. Instead, Cari Mora offers a view into something far worse: a furtive glimpse at the very best, and the very worst of the people and monsters that surround us. And at both extremes, they wear our skin.

We are introduced here not only to sadistic criminal Hans-Peter Schneider (he of the tall hairless features) and his shadows, very bad men who work for him, but to those whom he provides with unspeakable entertainment and horrific services—namely, the mysterious Mr. Gnis of Mauritania and Mr. Imran.

Then there are the South American gangsters and their cabal, who like Schneider, have located a bolt-hole in Miami, Florida, an abode formerly owned by Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar. It was a house he never used. It was purchased for his family, should he ever have been arrested by U.S. law-enforcement authorities (specifically, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the FBI) and incarcerated on American soil. It was a place where they could live, allowing his South American family a less arduous journey between penitentiary visits.

According to Jesus Villarreal, a dying man in Colombia, that house—the one that sits on stilts along the Miami Beach waterfront—also contains $25 million in gold bars, the proceeds realized by drug sales, a secret legacy of the late Escobar.

Jesus Villarreal needs to provide for his family. So in his hospital bed, between gasps of breath drawn from an oxygen cylinder, he has been talking not only with Hans-Peter Schneider, but also with Don Ernesto, the head of a Colombian crime syndicate. He tells both parties the location of Pablo Escobar’s house, but warns them that the gold bars are locked within a solid steel safe, heavily reinforced and armed with the plastic explosive Semtex. That bomb is also embedded with heavy-duty bolts to provide blast fragments—shrapnel—should the safe be tampered with. The safe is securely welded, with no edged hinges and no door, just one lever.

Villarreal, a senior figure from Pablo Escobar’s drug gang, is the only person with instructions on how to open the safe without causing a blast that would be visible the length of Miami’s beachfront. Naturally, the Miami Police as well as the DEA and FBI would like to know the location of Escobar’s gold hoard.

The resident caretaker on Escobar’s property is Caridad Mora, a young and beautiful woman from South America, now clinging onto her life in Miami by the thread of a precarious immigration status. She is a former kidnapped child-soldier, who managed to survive (and escape) the clutches of a ruthless militia. Cari Mora is a decent person, a woman who did not allow the terrors (and torture) of her past to change her; instead, she remains good, helping other people, as well as the animals at a local wildlife sanctuary. She is the light, a beacon that the forces of darkness are coming for as they close on the house that Pablo Escobar once owned.

Apart from the gold, Hans-Peter Schneider also wishes to capture the lovely Ms. Mora, for he has designs, unspeakable desires that are detailed on a sketch pad, and have been shared with Mr. Gnis and Mr. Imran.

And there hangs this tale, one that makes the reader pause for thought, for there are turns of phrase, sentences and paragraphs in the text that make one feel like a rodent trapped in the headlights of an oncoming truck. Words are selected with a precision that entrances the reader.

Harris introduces Cari Mora as someone who could have easily secured a beauty-contest trophy

… if it were not for the scars on her arms. Truly they are only snaky lines on her clear brown-gold skin. The scars are more exotic than disfiguring. Like cave paintings of wavy snakes. Experience decorates us.

But it’s that young woman’s guile and her ability to confront the forces of evil that are especially bewitching, and that turn this book into a definable “experience.”

It’s a short novel, really—just 320 pages—but it is elegantly composed, without a a superfluous word, punctuation mark, or subplot. However, it will leave paintings on the canvas of your mind, literary brushstrokes that fold and distort an intriguing crime-fiction scenario into something greater, something with sharp edges that mimic the penetrative quality of Hans-Peter Schneider’s obsidian blades.

This book’s climactic chapters require a warning. At times I felt my heart rate elevate, as I heard the blood in my ears surging. It took all of my self-control to read this work slowly, to not consume it in one huge gulp, but to instead allow author Harris’ thoughts, phrases, and insights bleed into me. And when I put the book down, I recalled the times I have visited exhibitions of artistry that displayed the darkest canvases of Hieronymus Bosch or Pieter Bruegel (the Elder); I felt my mind had been scarred.

As should be obvious by now, I have tremendous admiration for Thomas Harris. Cari Mora reinforces the brilliance of this author who can carve a piece of art from words on a page, and form a narrative that scorches the mind, and makes one think. Or, in the case of the term “English breakfast,” now makes me twitch uncontrollably. ◊

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