Amid great secrecy, and after years of anonymous labour, here comes Thomas Harris's latest Hannibal Lecter novel. But do readers still care?by Jason Cowley / November 19, 2006 / Leave a comment
A feast of fiction Thomas Harris returns in early December with the fourth novel in his remarkably successful series about the murderous psychiatrist Hannibal Lecter. Through the film adaptations of Harris’s work, Lecter—snob, gourmand, aesthete and murderer—has become perhaps the defining Hollywood anti-hero of our time, a contemporary Dracula. Before Lecter, serial killers were portrayed in literature and film as sad and feeble degenerates, outcasts with little cultural sophistication. Since Lecter, it has become almost obligatory for them to have a PhD and a highly refined aesthetic sensibility.
The new novel, Hannibal Rising, returns to Lecter’s childhood and adolescence in eastern Europe as it seeks to answer a question that has long troubled readers of the series: why does Lecter kill? The profound mystery of the first two novels, Red Dragon (1981) and The Silence of the Lambs (1988), was that no psychological explanation was offered for Lecter’s extreme cruelty. He seemed to have come from nowhere and was the epitome of “motiveless malignancy,” as Coleridge wrote of Shakespeare’s Iago.
Harris began colouring in Lecter’s past in Hannibal (1999), the third novel in the series. We discovered that Lecter was from an aristocratic eastern European family and that during the war his sister had been murdered by German troops in retreat from the Soviets. She was tortured and mutilated, and then parts of her body were eaten. Lecter witnessed all this and, it is suggested, can never forget or forgive what happened. Her murder made him who he is.
Great claims were made for Harris in the period following the publication of the hugely accomplished The Silence of the Lambs and the subsequent popularity of Jonathan Demme’s Oscar-winning film. Websites were set up dedicated to decoding the novels, which are dense in arcane reference and allusion. One of Harris’s most ardent admirers, David Sexton, the critic and literary editor, even wrote a short biographical study, The Strange World of Thomas Harris, in which he compared Harris to Edgar Allan Poe and Bram Stoker. All of this seemed to irritate Martin Amis, who wrote a long review of Hannibal in Talk magazine deriding Harris as a literary barbarian. Harris responded to all of this chatter, as he does to so much else, with magisterial indifference.
Success has bought him a peculiar freedom. He remains one of the most indulged writers in the world. The publication of each new Lecter book…