By Stephen Jay Schwartz

So I’ve been rummaging through the undersides of things in my effort to consolidate the clutter of my life before moving from house to apartment, occasionally jumping when the call of “Spider!” comes from one of the other rooms, from one of the other family members, and my life-saving skills are required to take the thick or thin or hairy or spindly eight-legged offender out to the outside of the domicile where we, ourselves, will soon be outside looking in.

It’s a bitch of a time to get any writing done, and a few weeks after I started my third novel I find myself just ten pages in, ten solid pages, re-written ten times, but ten pages nonetheless.  My focus has been on the move and the day job and on finishing my tour for BEAT, which took me back to my hometown of Albuquerque, New Mexico, last weekend.  Writing will again commence Thanksgiving morn, when I’ll be looking at four ten-hour writing days in a row.

But I have during this time made time to read.  I tackled the works of Thomas Harris, picking up SILENCE OF THE LAMBS and RED DRAGON.  I was getting tired of being the only writer on the planet who couldn’t say that RED DRAGON was the best thriller ever written.  I’ve seen the title pop up in just about everyone’s Top Ten List, and I was at this year’s Men of Mystery when Greg Hurwitz was asked to name the best thriller ever written, and he said it would have to be RED DRAGON.

I read the books back-to-back, but backwards, diving into LAMBS first only because I was able to acquire it before DRAGON.

I was just a few pages into LAMBS when I got the cozy feeling that I was in the hands of a master.  It was revving up to be the perfect reading experience and I felt myself trying to slow things down, afraid I’d run into a bump along the way, something that might derail this wonder-train and break the illusion I was getting that LAMBS might in fact be the golden elixir of thrillers.  I zipped through the novel and was not disappointed.  It was brilliant, and in my opinion, a perfect novel.

I eagerly leapt into RED DRAGON, expecting the same.  And it was great, it was wonderful, but it wasn’t SILENCE OF THE LAMBS. 

Both novels are compelling studies of characters in duress.  Perhaps what makes DRAGON stand out so much is its depiction of semi-retired FBI profiler/forensic analyst Will Graham, the physically and psychologically wounded man responsible for capturing the cannibalistic serial killer Hannibal Lecter.  Asked to return to the FBI to pursue another brutal killer, Graham first visits Lecter in jail, hoping to obtain a little insight.  Lecter asks him the question, “Do you know how you caught me, Will?”  He answers his own question thereafter, saying, “The reason you caught me is that we’re just alike.”  This statement haunts Graham through the rest of the book, and Harris does a bang-up job convincing us that Graham fears he has what it takes to be another Hannibal Lecter.

All of DRAGON’S characters are complex and believable and the science and procedural aspects of the book are spot on.  It’s a really great book, but it’s not SILENCE OF THE LAMBS.

What is it about LAMBS that captures me so?

First of all, it’s tight.  I’m a big fan of tight.  I’m a student of Jim Thompson, and his writing is honed down to the bone, and it moves.  We talk here at Murderati about “cutting out the stuff no one reads,” and Thompson’s work stands out as a shining example of that.  I read Thompson continuously as I was writing my last few drafts of BOULEVARD, and his writing taught me to constantly tighten and trim my prose.  His work proves that less is often more.  I’ve noticed that BEAT is a tighter, faster ride than BOULEVARD, and my new book is tighter still.  Soon I’ll be writing mystery-thriller haikus.

LAMBS is rich with detail.  It’s obvious that Harris has done his homework.  But the volume of research is presented with amazing restraint.  There’s no need to take the reader on long tangents into the history of profiling or forensic science.  No need to give us more than the very basics about Clarice’s boss, Jack Crawford.  Just enough to bring out character, without drowning the reader in backstory.  One beautiful little character touch comes in a narrative line about Crawford that reads, “Back at his chair he cannot remember what he was reading.  He feels the books beside him to find the one that is warm.”  There are little brushstrokes like this everywhere in the novel.

And don’t even get me started on the rich character descriptions of Clarice, Hannibal Lecter, Chilton and Buffalo Bill.  Every character, even the walk-ons, is unique and bursting with dimension. 

Clarice herself is exceptional.  There is such complexity to her, in that she is a young, female, FBI trainee with a troubled past and a chip on her shoulder.  She’s refreshingly original and her sense of pride and justice are things to admire.  Match that with Lecter’s eerie, uncanny ability to peer into the recesses of everyone’s psychology, and you’ve got two of the best characters ever written. 

In LAMBS, Lecter is a slippery guide and mentor, and, while he’s always out for himself, he finds joy in helping Clarice along on her path.  He plays a slightly different role in DRAGON, by actively helping the antagonist in Lecter’s own quest to destroy Will Graham.  This doesn’t feel like the Lecter I know from LAMBS.  It’s cleverly done in DRAGON, but it reduces Lecter’s role to something less than his potential, which is further developed, with greater satisfaction, in LAMBS.

The pacing of LAMBS was also more satisfying than in DRAGON.  LAMBS grabbed me by the throat and shook me almost to unconsciousness, then slapped me in the face repeatedly to wake me up.  It was a non-stop ride on a jackhammer.  And yet I still felt firmly planted in the story—the speed of the narrative didn’t come at the cost of losing the story’s foundation.  I still got the opportunity to peek into the world of the FBI, to spend time in Quantico, to learn about Clarice’s early life on the farm, her run from the glue factory, her desperate wish to live in a world of silence, where the lambs never cry. 

And I had the opportunity to observe the smartest serial killer on the planet.  I don’t know if I’ll ever have Harris’ chops—Hannibal Lecter is the most interesting antagonist I’ve met.  There is more of Lecter in LAMBS, too.  He plays a more vital role in the narrative, and yet he doesn’t steal the story from its principal characters, Clarice, Crawford and Buffalo Bill.

Listen, I could go on forever, analyzing the structures of each novel, deconstructing every chapter and paragraph, explaining what works for me and why.  They are both great novels, but I clearly see SILENCE OF THE LAMBS in the top spot. 

Let’s hear some comments.  What do you think is the best thriller of all time?  Why?

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Also, my short story prequel to BOULEVARD is now available as a FREE DOWNLOAD from my website.  It will also be available on Kindle and other e-book devices beginning December 7.


In CROSSING THE LINE, young LAPD officer Hayden Glass is driven to move quickly up the ranks at the department. Only one year in, he decides to pad his experience with a stint in Vice. But, with a marriage on the rocks and carrying the weight of a dark and troubled past, Hayden cannot resist the temptations he encounters on the street. CROSSING THE LINE marks the moment Hayden’s sex-addiction first rears its ugly head.


20 thoughts on “LAMB SLAYS DRAGON

  1. Laura Jane Thompson

    I definitely agree with you about SILENCE OF THE LAMBS. I enjoyed RED DRAGON but I felt Will Graham's exploration of the Leedses' and Jacobis' homes was a bit too long-winded. I also felt the glimpses of Lecter were too few, especially compared with the second book.

    My favorite thriller of all time, however, is Dean Koontz's FROM THE CORNER OF HIS EYE. Enoch Cain is not the same kind of antagonist as Lecter. He's certifiably insane and becomes increasingly disorganized as the story goes on, but actually gets more terrifying as his desperation grows. CORNER has a prohibitively large cast of characters, but Koontz gives just the right amount of weight to each.

  2. Alafair Burke

    I loved Silence of the Lambs and Red Dragon so much that Hannibal just made me really, really sad. And a little pissed. But I guess it's a lesson that no matter how much we come to think we know a character, ultimately the author owns his or her characters' identities and destinies.

  3. PK the Bookeemonster

    In terms of the movies, I prefer the Michael Mann version of Red Dragon, Manhunter released in 1986. Just do.
    I don't think I read enough thrillers to make a good determination. Just a case, I think, of too much to read, too little time.

  4. Alan Orloff

    You can't go wrong picking either RED DRAGON or LAMBS. And to echo Alafair's experience, HANNIBAL was the only book I've actually, physically, thrown across the room after I finished it.

  5. Gar Haywood

    Up until this very moment, I would have said RED DRAGON was my choice for best thriller of all time, with SILENCE OF THE LAMBS coming in a close second. But I read the two books in order, and maybe I've always preferred DRAGON simply because no book had ever scared me that much before.

    Incidentally, Harris' first thriller, BLACK SUNDAY, was also completely kick-ass, though more people saw the movie than read the book. Ticking clock suspense novels don't get any better than that.

    Finally, William Goldman's MARATHON MAN would hold its own with any of the aforementioned thrillers. It features the best damn prologue I've ever read.

  6. Karen in Ohio

    Although I will most likely never read either book (that kind of thriller creeps me out), I have to say this is one of the best book reviews I've ever read, Stephen. Thank you for such thoughtful and thorough analysis!

  7. Allison Brennan

    Very intriguing Stephen! I loved both books, but I liked RED DRAGON more . . . but I read it before SILENCE. I also am biased because I saw the movie SILENCE before I read the book, but didn't see DRAGON until after I read the book.

    While I agree that SILENCE has stronger pacing, I know exactly why I like DRAGON more: Character. Will Graham is one of the greatest troubled protagonists I've read; Freddy Lounds (sp?) was a perfect reporter for the story; and Francis Dollarhyde was truly a well-written, well-constructed, well-motivated villain.

    This doesn't mean that SILENCE doesn't have all of that, because there is no one like Hannibal out there, making SILENCE a classic and DRAGON a sleeper. But my single greatest problem with SILENCE is that I just didn't like Clarice Starling. I don't know why, she didn't resonate with me. I didn't like some of her decisions, and I didn't really bond with her like I did Will. I felt Will's pain and conflict; I didn't feel that with Clarice.

    I think both are excellent books, however, and that's why I didn't read HANNIBAL because I didn't want my experience destroyed by where I heard he was taking the characters. (BTW, I saw both DRAGON movies and neither was well done. The first (MANHUNTER) was too slow and deviated too much from the story, the second (RED DRAGON) was more true to the story and more fast paced, but focused on (IMO) the violence and changed the ending (If I'm remembering this correctly, it's been awhile.)

    In terms of the best thriller? I can't say. I think there are a lot of outstanding thrillers. THE DEPARTED is one of my favorite thriller movies. Also, THE MATRIX.

    Stephen, have you read Keith Ablow? He has a tortured. recovering drug addict forensic pathologist as his protagonist. You can start anywhere, but the first book I read was his third, PSYCHOPATH, and it is one of the best books of the kind out there. In fact, I put him as equal to (and sometimes better than) Harris. He only wrote six books and never hit a list. he should have because I would love to get more books. I've read them all.

  8. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Laura – I'm right with you on the time spent on the Leeds and Jacobis investigations. And I was dying for more Lecter. I'm putting the Koontz on my reading list now – thank you.

    Spencer – stay away from that cowbell and get crackin' on the reading!

    Cornelia – boy, I didn't get that at all. I thought Lecter was pretty darned brilliant.

    Alafair – I haven't read Hannibal, but everyone has steered me away from it. What a shame. I think I'll stick to re-reading the first two.

    PK – I definitely need to see the Michael Mann film. He's a great director, someone I'd love to work with in the future if I get the chance.

    Louise – If I had more time I'd write you a shorter haiku…

    Alan – I don't think I'll read Hannibal, because I don't want it to be the first book I throw across a room as well.

    Gar – thanks for the great comments. Yes, I need to pick up Black Sunday. I never did see the movie, which is probably a plus if I'm going to read the book. And you're not the first to recommend Marathon Man – it's the very next on my list. Brett Battles, Rob and quite a few other respectful members of the thriller community have told me it's a MUST read.

    Karen – thank you, dear, for the wonderful compliment.

    Allison – yes, I do agree that the characters in Dragon are exceptionally well-drawn. And Freddy is perfect – weasily and greedy and unappreciated…and yet I also empathize with him. And Francis' character is captured like no other…especially after we spend time in his past, seeing how his mother and grandmother treated him. I really felt for him, as a boy, until he started killing animals. Harris managed to create sympathy for what would ultimately become a deranged killer. So, I did like drifting into their worlds. And Will was definitely a great character–troubled, on the verge of collapse. Still, Lambs gave me really well-drawn characters, too, without slowing the story one bit. And I loved Clarice, I thought her decisions were motivated by her past, the way she grew up, and Lecter keyed into that immediately – he found her weakness and exploited it.
    It's interesting how different both books are, and yet how they are both considered to be the best of their genre.

  9. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Oh, Allison – thanks again for the Keith Ablow lead – quite a few people have referred me to him and I've yet to pick up one of his books. I'll go for Psychopath first.

  10. Dao

    When Silence of the Lambs won the Oscars, I wanted to watch it (I was around 10, 11 years old at a time.) My dad, however, thought it was too violent. He didn't even buy the book. Therefore, I haven't read either one of them. Also, I am not sure if I'm comfortable with the subject matter, either. But since you rave too much about it, I may give it a try and see how things go. If it's too revolting, I will have to put the book down and walk away.

  11. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Dao – I really don't think Lambs is revolting. It's more of a psychological journey. It doesn't really get graphically horrific, if memory serves me. I think the film is more graphic.

  12. Dudley Forster

    This must be the “What is your favorite [insert genre/category] book week. Toni had a similar post on MSW yesterday. I love these types of questions but I have NaNo brain and these questions require me to think.

    I have never read either LAMBS or RED. Maybe the movie spoiled my desire. They have been on my to read list, but I always pick something else.

    When it comes to thrillers, like other genres, I have a hard time answering the question of best because I think in subgenres and comparing a psychological thriller to a techno thriller feels like an apples and oranges thing.

    I grew up munching on Alistair MacLean’s books, anxiously waiting for each new book to come out. There were also Forbes, Forsyth and Ludlum. So by subgenre here are some of my “bests”

    Legal Thriller – PRESUMED INNOCENT by Scott Turow, I think it is the gold standard of legal thrillers. It has a cross examination in it that is a lawyer’s wet dream.

    Techno Thrillers – THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER by Clancy I know a lot of writers don’t care for Clancy but for a tech-head that grew up in the Cold War and read the book while still in the throes of it the book is damn good, so is SUM OF ALL FEARS. Runners up would be Crichton’s ANDROMEDA STRAIN and JURASSIC PARK

    Medical Thrillers – POSTMORTEM by Patricia Cornwell and THE SURGEON and THE APPRENTICE by Tess Gerritsen. I could never get into Robin Cook.

    Action-adventure thrillers. This is impossible. Alistair MacLean’s BREAKHEART PASS, PUPPET ON CHAIN , CARAVAN TO VACCARES, ICE STATION ZEBRA etc. Anything Cussler, no way to chose. Throw in James Rollins books to the list.

    Psychological Thrillers – From all the comments, if I get around to reading LAMBS this would be my best. Since I haven’t , my best would be EVERY DEAD THING by John Connolly

  13. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Oh, you are so after my own heart. Most men say Dragon, most women Lambs, but to me SOTL is the perfect book – and movie. I love them both – and really both are more horror than thriller, the layers of evil are so clearly transcend the realistic and achieve the mythic.

    Why Lambs? There's more sex to it, obviously. There's a particular eroticism to simply KNOWING someone, psychologically, and that makes the Lecter/Clarice dynamic hypnotically riveting. Tragic that Harris ever tried to make that physical.

    Red Dragon is truly disturbing, not just a great psychological investigation but a wonderful portrait of a modern Frankenstein. But the rapes make that character unendurable to me and it makes my blood boil when people call him sympathetic.

    I teach these two novels and films (Manhunter, NOT Red Dragon, ick) all the time.

    Other perfect modern thrillers? If we're not talking supernatural, most everything by Michael Connelly, Lee Child, Mo Hayder, Denise Mina, and lately I'm loving RJ Ellory…. could go on and on. Author-based more than book-based.

  14. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Dudley – thanks for all those great references. I have to read me some John Connolly. And Andromeda Stain and Presumed Innocent…so much good stuff.

    Alex – that's it, it's the mythic nature of the books that really grabs me, I think. I'm joined with Jung and Joseph Campbell at the hips. I think I'll always write from a mythic place and, therefore, the novels I search out to read will have that influence.

  15. Reine

    Stephen, "… mystery-thriller haikus." Heh. LOL

    I'll see if I can muster up the courage to read Silence of the Lambs… mmmmmmm… tshhs… eeeeee … mmmmaybenot.

  16. Paula

    Most disturbing novel and movie.."Mother Love" I have the book, saw the movie, will never
    forget certain scenes. errie, read other coments from other fans.], seems they felt the same.

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