Book Review : Thomas Harris - Hannibal (1999)

Order HANNIBAL here

(also reviewed)
Order RED DRAGON here

You are a warrior, Clarice. The enemy is dead, the baby safe. You are a warrior.

The most stable elements, Clarice, appear in the middle of the periodic table, roughly between iron and silver.
Between iron and silver. I think that is appropriate for you.

Reading RED DRAGON is 2012 was a minor revelation for me. Hannibal Lecter, who symbolizes the idea of a serial killer in bad writers' minds, was actually a part of great novels. Since the big screen adaptation of THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS in 1991, the ghost of Lecter overtook every damned book and movie during the nineties and beyond. He was a "real" threat. A character you couldn't even nightmare about. That hype spiral made HANNIBAL one of the most anticipated sequels in literature. It was an occasion for Thomas Harris to really differentiate his trademark character from the pack his appalling successors. Unfortunately, the main thing HANNIBAL accomplished is to display the mortal nature of ideas.

As usual, Thomas Harris didn't pick things up with Lecter right away. He keeps him lovingly hidden for a long moment, a tried and true literary device (think Gatsby). The novel opens with Starling, who got caught in the middle of another tragic shooting and Mason Verger, and ex-patient of Lecter, seeking revenge on his old psychiatrist for mangling his body to the very breaking point of what a human being can handle. Verger is planning a grand finale for Lecter, who he tracked in Italia. The good doctor is having a lot of fun in his new life, in the cradle of sophisticated art, but nothing can deliver him from the boredom of existence like an intricate murder attempt. That and Clarice Starling, of course.

HANNIBAL has interesting pieces, but never truly comes alive as one cohesive, orchestrated piece of fiction like RED DRAGON and THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS were. I think I understand why. The motivations of Lecter were made unclear by a poor development of Starling, who comes off as a moping automaton in this novel, rather than the feisty, earnest underdog she used to be. That short-circuits the whole meaning behind Lecter's masterful orchestration (and infamous finale), because it comes off as another machiavellian plan. It's not. He is genuinely in love with Starling. The surreal dining room scene at the end is an expression of his love and a dare to follow him. If Starling was still her soulful self going through the hardships, if she had more breathing room instead of having pages and pages of Italian men arguing over Verger's revenge scheme, it wouldn't have been so hard to understand.

It occurred to Dr. Lecter in the moment that with all his knowledge and intrusion, he could never entirely predict her, or own her at all. He could feed the caterpillar, he could whisper through the chrysalis; what hatched out followed its own nature and was beyond him. He wondered if she had the .45 on her leg beneath the gown.

Clarice Starling smiled at him then, the cabochons caught the firelight and the monster was lost in self-congratulation at his own exquisite taste and cunning.

There are some pieces that work. Shadows of the delight that reading the previous novels was. The fiery love letters Lecter writes to Starling are amazing. Although they never mention the word "love", they are uplifting, poetic and piercing with pertinent insight. The scenes directly dealing with Mason Verger's background and motivations also stood out. Revenge seems obvious at first, but knowing the man a little better, it becomes a more difficult question to answer. Verger craves fear and power. Lecter made him look weak and he is the main obstacle to striking fear into his entourage's heart again. It begins as revenge, but it evolves into competition, which, as you can imagine, delights the good doctor.

HANNIBAL didn't live up to RED DRAGON and THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS. The pieces are there, but meaning isn't seamlessly sewn in, like for the others. It's not a failure, but the power behind the Hannibal Lecter concept is clearly dimming (and has completely vanished in the melodramatic and uninspired HANNIBAL RISING). Ideas don't live forever. Sequels are an intoxicating idea, but they dilute the artistic intent that made the original work so awe-inspiring. Let HANNIBAL be an example that if you keep hollowing out your cast, as iconic as it might be, you're leading them to their own end. It had great pieces, but never had the necessary steam to pull it all together. Sometimes, you need new ideas to perpetrate genius.


I'm a pop culture blogger and author living in Montreal, Canada with my better half Josie and my dog Scarlett. I am a proud member of author collective Zelmer Pulp and have about a dozen of short stories published to my resume.

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