As I finish up what is hopefully my last round of edits, I find myself thinking more and more about my next project, a sequel to my current novel. Sequels can be tricky, and they often pale in comparison to the original, so I thought I would look at a novel that is so exemplary that many don’t even realize it’s a sequel: The Silence of the Lambs.
I can’t recall when I first met Hannibal “the Cannibal” Lecter, but I do know it was the movie rather than the book and I was likely too young.
I recall better my first time reading one of Thomas Harris’ novels, Red Dragon. The first book in the series, it begins shortly after Hannibal’s initial capture. An FBI agent, Will Graham, must consult with the doctor to solve a murder. Unlike the protagonist of Lambs, Clarice Starling, Graham has a long history with Lecter. They worked together profiling killers before Lecter’s incarceration. In fact, Graham is the reason Lecter is behind bars.
The summer after my freshman year of high school, I devoured this book (pun intended), but didn’t pick up Silence of the Lambs until just this year. Now, having read all three of the original series (there’s also a prequel, but I haven’t gotten around to it yet), I can confidently say Lambs is the strongest. Let’s look at why.
Rather than follow up with disfigured Will Graham in the sequel, Harris retires Graham and introduces Clarice Starling, an up-and-coming trainee. He does keep Graham’s mentor Jack Crawford, though. Plucking Starling from Quantico, Crawford sends the trainee to interview Lecter and glean what she can about a recent killer they’re calling Buffalo Bill. While Dragon feels like an in medias res opening, Lambs has the aura of new beginnings. Starling’s relationship with Lecter is also more dynamic than Graham’s. Rather than wanting her dead and plotting toward that end, Lecter falls in love with her—while also kind of wanting to kill and eat her.
While the original Lecter book followed detective Will Graham and killer Francis Dolarhyde, Lambs gives us Lecter’s perspective as well. In a real sense, this POV overshadows the other plot lines. The technical climax of the novel comes as Starling tracks down Buffalo Bill in his home (the night vision goggle scene). But Lecter’s climax is perhaps more memorable: he must escape from Memphis authorities while handcuffed in a roofless cell in an ornate hall on the fifth floor of a building with only one, heavily guarded exit. I won’t spoil it if haven’t read Lambs, but it is a masterful scene—albeit a bit gory.
The best sequels build on what works from the original. They go deeper into the world the author created while also giving readers something unexpected. Silence of the Lambs does this and more.
As I begin to brainstorm and outline for my sequel, I’m on the lookout for sequels that outdo the original. If you have some favorites, drop their titles in the comment section below. Who knows? I just might review some of them here on my blog!