No, I’m not going to read the new Thomas Harris novel, Hannibal Rising, even though I’ve been a keen reader of Harris since his first novel, Black Sunday. Red Dragon, the book that introduced Hannibal Lecter to the world, knocked me for a loop when it came out, and when The Silence of the Lambs came out it marked the first and probably only time I will give books about a cannibalistic mass-murderer as Christmas presents.
But Hannibal was a money-churning scam through and through: the work of a writer who’d found a lucrative gimmick and was going to milk it for all it was worth. It was hard to tell what was most offensive about the book: the ramshackle plotting that kept Hannibal and Clarice apart until the last fifty pages of a very blowsy book; the transformation of Lecter into a kind of James Bond, outwitting legions of enemies while dispatching his victims with finely honed quips; the gallery of coarsely cynical and/or monstrous characters, all pretty obviously designed to be more disgusting or frightening than Lecter, thereby making him a more palatable hero; or the betrayal of Clarice, a character Harris had developed with enormous sympathy and artfulness in The Silence of the Lambs.
Actually, the worst aspect of Hannibal is continued in Hannibal Rising: the filling-in of Lecter’s background, and the childhood traumas that put him on the road to psycho-hood. The bizarre conclusion of Hannibal (the novel, that is) effectively closed off the possibility of another sequel, but Harris wasn’t going to walk away from the prospect of another fat payday. So — a prequel.
The problem is simple. There is nothing at all realistic about Hannibal Lecter: he is an overlay of about a dozen different serial killers, with a dash of monster movie hokum to make his atrocities intriguing and spooky rather than simply tawdry and depressing, as with real-life serial killers. I’m no law-enforcement expert, but I’ve spent a fair amount of time covering police and courts, and I’ve sat in on some pretty gruesome murder trials, and I’m here to tell you that the worldy, cultivated art lover of The Silence of the Lambs couldn’t be less like the damaged, twisted people — almost all of them horribly abused as children, then cast out to finish the job with drugs and alcohol — who figure in most homicide cases. It was far better to leave Hannibal as a fictional paradox who took cocky pride in his own unbelievability: “Nothing happened to me. I happened,” as Lecter tells Clarice in The Silence of the Lambs. ” Trying to give Lecter a realistic background exposes the silliness of the whole enterprise.
Maybe I should give Harris another shot, but quite fankly I felt like such a sucker after buying and reading Hannibal that I swore Thomas Harris would never see another one of my dollars. This off-the-cuff review from Chris Kelly in the HuffPo only confirms my worst suspicions. I used to be one of his most rabid fans, but from now on, Harris can dangle all the bait he likes — unlike his most famous creation, I’m not gonna bite.