Hannibal at 40: Lecter gets worldly in Thomas Harris’ ‘Hannibal’ (1999) (Book review)


o mark the 40th anniversary of author Thomas Harris’ invention of Hannibal Lecter and the 30th anniversary of “The Silence of the Lambs” – the only horror film to win Best Picture – we’re looking back at the four books and five films of the Hannibal Lecter series over nine Frightening Fridays. Next up is the “Hannibal” novel (1999):

Harris started off his Hannibal Lecter books in an almost hardboiled style, emphasizing procedural investigative work. But Hannibal is not the main dish in “Red Dragon” and “Silence of the Lambs,” where Will Graham and Clarice Starling star; he is the sumptuous side dish. In “Hannibal,” Lecter emerges front and center and Harris’ writing is no longer remotely hardboiled but instead polished, refined, cultured.

But it’s polished in a very intentional way, befitting the contemplative and meticulously planned life and movements of Lecter, one of the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted after his escape in “Silence.” Harris matches the writing style to his main character, who once again is disturbingly admirable and worth rooting for. Hannibal is not a villain we love to hate; he’s a villain we hate to love.

The author continues to pull off this trick because Hannibal likes Clarice, whom we also like. A decade after “Silence of the Lambs,” she’s now 32, an FBI agent, and still faced with the challenges that come from being female in a field dominated by men, speaking her mind and having no taste or ability for office politics. Jack Crawford remains her ally, and Krendler her enemy. As we learn in the book’s final section (at 500-plus pages and 100-plus chapters, this book is divided into six sections), Hannibal isn’t so much an advocate for Clarice’s professional advancement; rather, he hopes to help her transcend such petty concerns.

Harris has a knack for giving us the right details at the right time, allowing us to believe every twist of this increasingly insane story.

At a glance, it seems unlikely Hannibal could pull off such a thing; after all, Clarice fully believes Hannibal belongs in prison, and even admits to herself she’d be OK with law enforcement or one of Hannibal’s enemies killing him. But Harris has a knack for giving us the right details at the right time, allowing us to believe every twist of this increasingly insane story.

One key detail is that Starling can’t abide torture, and so she becomes Hannibal’s temporary ally at a key juncture. Mason Verger, on the other hand, literally keeps himself alive for the sake of seeing Hannibal tortured. Making Francis Dolarhyde and Jame Gumb seem run-of-the-mill by comparison, Verger concocts an elaborate scheme to capture Hannibal and feed him to starved wild boars, starting with his feet.

Verger himself, owing to a previous encounter with his rival sociopath Hannibal, is missing the skin on his face. He’s bedridden and kept alive by machines. “Hannibal” is on one level a pitch-black comedy, but because “Dragon” and “Lambs” are not, the slight change in tone catches a reader by surprise. We’re distracted by plausible details and a whole host of great side characters.

Among these are Verger’s musclebound lesbian sister, Margot, who has her own dark history with Mason. She’s a good example of the author’s overall aim in these books, and especially this one: to show how a person is shaped into evil by evil things that happen to them. We finally get a peek into what shaped Hannibal, too, as we learn his sister was eaten by a remote village of starving people after a Nazi raid when he was a lad.

Hannibal is an undefinable monster in “Dragon,” but by this third book, he’s understandable. This is where many stories go wrong. For example, it’s an ongoing debate in the “Halloween” fan community about whether it helps or hurts the saga to give Michael Myers a human backstory and motivations. I don’t think there’s an all-purpose answer, but being intrigued by Lecter after two books, I very much welcomed this deeper dive. If you like your monsters wholly mysterious, you can stop reading after the first two books.

In “Hannibal,” Lecter is a monster and human at the same time. I think Harris achieves this balance in part because of the sheer size of the novel; Hannibal may be the main character, but we come at him from various perspectives. His ability to stay a step ahead of his enemies – not to mention his taste in cuisine, which is finally showcased — is almost inhuman. Harris earns this because he has already established Lecter’s tactics and knack for gleaning insight into people.

The most indulgent part of “Hannibal” is the Florence section, wherein once-decent, now-corrupted cop Rinaldo Pazzi aims to capture Lecter outside the bounds of the law and collect Verger’s bounty. Going by an alias, Hannibal studies and gives lectures on the dark corners of Italian history, doing so within libraries and halls that themselves date back to those dark corners. Indeed, Pazzi’s ancestor was hanged to death for a crime outside a window of the building where Dr. Lecter works.

The Florence section, though set in the book’s present, plays like a trip into the past, because even the present-day bustle is centered on tourism and museums. It unquestionably gives weight to “Hannibal,” even if the personalizing of Pazzi is not part of the main narrative track.

Harris’ switch to a grand and sweeping saga is not unwelcome, despite the fact that I had no complaints about the tight and procedure-based “Dragon” and “Lambs.” In fact, Harris whets readers’ appetites with these side trips, because we know it’s all going to converge back at a Maryland farmstead, where Verger will attempt to feed Hannibal to his pigs. As he engages our morbid curiosity, the author makes us not exactly complicit with the villains, and not exactly on the side of Hannibal, but at least on the same page as Starling. She and we are drawn further into a world even more psychologically twisted than the FBI’s office politics.

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