The story is mostly a snooze: not so much “The Silence of the Lambs” as The Counting of the Sheep. It opens in Biscayne Bay at a mansion once owned by the late Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar. After passing through the hands of playboys, filmmakers and speculators, this fabled house now sits unused, filled with monster mannequins, slasher-movie props, an electric chair from Sing Sing and something called “sex furniture,” which I must ask about the next time I go to Ikea.
Only one person has the nerve to work as a caretaker of this old house of horrors: a beautiful immigrant named Cari Mora. At the age of 11, Cari was captured by
rebel guerrillas and used as a child soldier. But “she was quick and dexterous and strong,” Harris tells us, and managed to escape, though she remains deeply scarred. Now, she can make a mean rat soup, dispatch a muscled thug with her crucifix pendant and touch up her makeup on the fly. Maybe she’s born with it (maybe it’s Maybelline), but she’s certainly gunning to be the next Lisbeth Salander.
As Cari hides from U.S. immigration agents, nothing about Escobar’s creepy house frightens her. In fact, aside from passing tourists, the only people still interested in the building are a bunch of dopey gangsters who suspect a safe in the basement holds a thousand pounds of gold. While the novel plods along with a hodgepodge of macabre silliness, various crooks try to figure out how to open the safe without blowing themselves to kingdom come. All Cari has to do is stay out of their way. Despite a few shootouts, beheadings and a hungry saltwater crocodile, most of this is about as suspenseful as watching Geraldo Rivera knock on Al Capone’s vault.
The real terror at the center of “Cari Mora” is supposed to be a “totally hairless” German named Hans-Peter Schneider who is determined to get the gold and Cari. He’s definitely a nasty guy. As a kid, he locked his parents alive in a walk-in freezer until he could shatter them with an ax. Now, his specialty is amputating women’s body parts according to the sexual fetishes of his deranged clients around the world. (He does a little side business in organ trafficking, too, because apparently there are still Hannibal Lecters out there looking for snacks.) But once a rival notes that Hans-Peter looks like a penis wearing glasses, it’s hard to reclaim the dark side.
Which is the central problem with “Cari Mora.” Despite all its ghastly goings-on, this creaky thriller constantly slips on banana peels of its own unintentional comedy — as though it craves to be “Nosferatu” but ends up like “What We Do in the Shadows.” With his usual subtlety, Harris notes that Hans-Peter gives off “a whiff of brimstone.” And early in the novel, Hans-Peter extols the convenience of his most prized possession: a liquid cremation machine, which, he brags, is so much more ecologically friendly than those dirty burning crematories. “The liquid method left no carbon footprint, or print of any kind,” Harris says like he’s channeling Mel Brooks. “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.”
Even Anthony Hopkins would strain to make this gory goofiness frightening, particularly when Hans-Peter breaks into a little jingle: “Call Hans-Peter — that’s the name! — and away go troubles down the drain!” If he ever gets arrested, this criminal mastermind can always plead criminal inanity.
A couple of sentimental side stories eventually lead off to nowhere, but we finally get a climactic confrontation between Hans-Peter and Cari Mora that suggests just how exciting the rest of this story could have been. In the same way, every so often, there’s a passage of real stylistic richness like this description of one victim “sitting against the tree, buzzards on both his shoulders like the dark angels of his nature, mantling him with their black wings while they ate the soft parts of his face, his silvered canine teeth gleaming, getting the light all the time now.” I was hungry for much more of that lavish, gothic prose.
Toward the end of the novel, a man-eating crocodile in Biscayne Bay suffers a small bout of indigestion while passing one of the gangsters he ate. Readers of “Cari Mora” are likely to suffer similar but wholly temporary discomfort.
Grand Central. 311 pp. $29