I've come to an interpretation of Thomas Harris' The Silence of the Lambs that's far different from what I thought when I first read it. When I first got hold of the paperback, a few weeks after the film adaptation came out but before I had a chance to see it, I thought the villain was the bad guy who had freedom to move around, select new victims, and threaten to practice his depravities on them: the Buffalo Bill whackjob. Of course, the agent-in-training Clarice Starling was the hero of the tale, backed up by a distracted mentor and a murderer who feeds her equal parts of lies and ravelled truths and pursued by a cadre of bureaucrats she managed to piss off on her way to stopping Buffalo Bill and freeing his latest victim. The serial killer is killed and the plot ends. Ta-da. Pop the champagne.
When I watched the film, and loved it, I continued to think this was the story.
However, I picked up the book again several months ago and got a different reading this time. A darker one. I realized that the entire Buffalo Bill plotline -- the skin fetishism, and the captive kept in a dry well begging for help, and the thrills the killer creates as agents and readers chase after him -- was the subplot. The main plot revolved around Hannibal Lecter, the cannibalistic murderer Clarice Starling interrogates, too young to realize she's been sent to gain his assistance hunting down Buffalo Bill. Lecter understands, at once, the value of Starling for his purposes. His only purpose at the present, freedom.
He has information about the case and he's going to get himself a great deal, greater than anyone around him realizes. He sends Starling off with a crumb at the end of their first meeting, enough to make the little bird hungry for more, enough to tempt his old nemesis inside the FBI to let Starling venture out into dangerous parts of the world. He lies to her. She lies to him. His original plan to gain more freedom for himself changes when the bureaucrat who runs the prison inserts himself. Lecter negotiates a better deal, one that he foresees will give him absolute freedom. He murders corrections officers and ambulance staff and a hapless tourist in an airport parking garage. He gets his freedom. The plot, the real plot ends here, and it's wonderful that such a madman is free inside a safe, fictional cage. Clarice's obsession for the minor plot continues while the major player arranges for reconstructive surgery.
The bad guy wins in this alternate interpretation. He took an inch of rope and stretched in longer than his body, long enough to crawl from his confinement. He plays with everyone, discards the uninteresting or inutile. There's the real plotline: how Hannibal Lecter won his freedom. Unfortunately the subsequent book is rotten so we never get to see a worthwhile expression of what Lecter does with his freedom.
But this book is all about the avarice of Lecter and his success, a celebration of the dark and corrupt. I wish there were more villains this great in literature. A simple desire, a facile regard for the brutality he needs to exercise to get what he wants, and an unwavering drive to make it all happen.