- - Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Let’s say you are totally evil, a person without any saving human graces, a cross between the fictional Hannibal Lecter and the all-too-real Adolf Hitler. In other words, you’re a Thomas Harris bad guy, and in this book, the author’s first novel in 13 years, your name is Hans-Peter Schnieder.

You know that hidden somewhere in or near a mansion on Miami’s Biscayne Bay are stacks of gold bars worth $25 million to $30 million. And because you are bad to the bone, you don’t care what you have to do —  or to whom you have to do it — to get the hidden treasure.

The house is empty; rented from time to time to people who make horror movies, and it’s filled with scary film props. The only occupant is the caretaker, a local girl named Cari Mora who sleeps there each night (because of an insurance requirement) and at times prepares food for the crews to eat.

Cari may look like a clueless, sweet young thing, but in fact she’s the opposite. Cari is a hardened survivor of the terror in her home country of Colombia, which she fled, and where she, as a child soldier had learned to stitch up the wounds of the injured. She’d like to be a veterinarian, but if she registers in a proper school in Florida, ICE will have her name and she’ll be deported — or jailed. So, in addition to working at a shelter for injured birds and small animals, she takes any kind of odd job that pays. And caretaker of a house filled with horror film props is definitely an odd job.

But what Hans-Peter knows and Cari doesn’t is that somewhere in or under or near the mansion lie the golden bars. He’s going to sneak into the house, and if he encounters Cari and has to kill her, so be it. Or, if he decides to take her captive, he can sell her to his customers who are almost as creepy and evil as he is. Selling young women — or parts of them — is his main line of work. And if he has some of a human body left over, he gets rid of it by using his portable cremation machine — a classic Thomas Harris touch.

“Hans-Peter was very proud of his liquid cremation machine. He’d had to pay a premium for it, as liquid cremation was becoming all the rage with ecology enthusiasts eager to avoid the carbon footprint of cremation by fire. The liquid method left no carbon footprint, or print of any kind. If a girl did not work out, Hans-Peter could just pour her down the loo in liquid form — and with no harmful effect on the groundwater.”

During the day, Hans-Peter has a small crew digging up the basement of the mansion, but while they are at it, a gardener hired by the house’s current owner discovers a sink hole near the sea wall. Looking down into it, he sees what Hans-Peter and his bad guys are searching for: “A shiny cube larger than a refrigerator stood at the far end of the cave, almost flush against the foundation of the house … Beside the cube, at water’s edge, were a human skull and the back half of a dog.” 

Hans-Peter sends a diver into the cave to size up the cube. The diver reports, “It’s a box taller than it is wide … Size of a refrigerator. Bigger, like a deli refrigerator.”

What they don’t know, but do suspect is that the cube is booby-trapped to prevent entry by “unauthorized persons.” In fact, Mr. Harris tells us, “… the cube is wired with enough explosives to obliterate anyone who tries to crack it open.”

And that’s the plot, the resolution of which takes up the remainder of the book in which the author displays his characteristic inventiveness in a variety of ways. But wait, Mr. Harris has always insisted that he doesn’t make up anything. In May, an interviewer wrote, “One widespread myth is that prying reporters kept trying to figure out where his twisted ideas came from, [and] “Acquaintances do sometimes ask how he dreams up such lurid stories. When I asked how he replies, Harris stared at me as if the answer should be obvious. ‘I respond that I don’t make anything up. So look around you,’ he says. ‘Because everything has happened.’”

Thomas Harris may have taken time off — a baker’s dozen years — from writing novels, but it certainly doesn’t show. His dialogue is as crisp and fast moving as ever, and you definitely “see” his setting. You also find yourself rooting for the good guys and hoping the bad ones get what they deserve.

Cari Mora” is an excellent novel for a chilly fall night, like maybe Halloween.

• John Greenya, a Washington writer and critic, is the author of “Gorsuch: The Judge Who Speaks For Himself” (Simon and Schuster, 2018).

• • •


By Thomas Harris

Grand Central Publishing, $29, 320 pages

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