Ever since The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo became a worldwide phenomenon and Lisbeth Salander a household name, there has been a lot of talk about badass female characters in mystery novels and thrillers.
I was always struck that people found Lisbeth to be a new archetype in crime novels. She definitely stretched the boundaries for a lot of readers, but so did V.I. Warshawski in Sarah Paretsky’s masterful series, James Patterson’s The Women’s Murder Club, Amelia Sachs in Jeffery Deaver’s Lincoln Rhyme novels (and for me, Amelia has always been more interesting than Lincoln), Tess Gerritsen’s Rizzoli and Isles, Kay Scarpetta from Patricia Cornwell, and I could go on… and that’s just recent history!
For me, though, there is no one in the cannon who is more incredibly badass than FBI agent Clarice Starling in Thomas Harris’s seminal novel The Silence of the Lambs.
Before Jodie Foster memorably brought Clarice to life on the big screen, Harris’ novel first introduced her as an awkward, intelligent, and incredible striver who succeeds in catching the killer not because she does what other agents do, but because she is strong enough to be herself, brave and vulnerable in equal measure.
I read The Silence of the Lambs as a teenager on a long train trip and have vivid memories of watching the countryside go by as Clarice gathers the strength and resolve to take on the world’s most notorious serial killer. She knows she is being used by her superiors at the Bureau, but is determined to not let this opportunity slip past her.
Those cell block meetings between Clarice and Lecter struck me then—and now—not for Lecter’s viciousness, but rather for Clarice’s ability to get what she needs. She keeps her focus on saving the Senator’s daughter who has been kidnapped by one of Lecter’s former patients. No matter how much Lecter tries to toy with her, Clarice gives as good as she gets and has the chops to decipher the cryptic clues Lecter gives her as rewards for allowing him to delve into her childhood. As Lecter said, “Quid pro quo.”
And while the FBI men race across the country, Clarice figures out where the killer actually is by putting together the clues that every cop and investigator had missed.
That’s what I call badass.
Bonus: The film version of The Silence of the Lambs is one of only three films to ever win all big five categories at the Academy Awards—Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Actor, Best Director, and Best Screenplay. The other two films to do so were It Happened One Night and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
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Brian McLendon is the Vice President, Associate Publisher/Marketing Director of Grand Central Publishing and Twelve. When in high school, he discovered the works of Stephen King, Peter Straub, and Scott Turow, who remain three of his favorite authors to this day. Brian says that he has one of the best jobs in the world because he gets to work with some of the best mystery and thriller authors writing today.