Books: Horrors in the memory palace of Dr Lecter

Hannibal by Thomas Harris Heinemann pounds 16.99

In He Who Fights Monsters, Robert K Ressler, the real-life FBI agent upon whom Thomas Harris's fictional character Jack Crawford is based, describes what the writer was like when he was accompanying the FBI agent for the purposes of researching his books. Ressler also goes in some detail into the plausibility or otherwise of Harris's most famous fictional creation, the polymath psychopath Dr Hannibal "the cannibal" Lecter.

Ressler found Harris to be more or less a typical writer; interested in extrapolating entertaining tropes from grisly leavings of the likes of Ted Bundy. Certainly Ressler detected nothing creepy or demonic about the writer, and his remarks on his own fictionalisation are, to say the least, prosaic. But then the activities of real serial killers are nothing if not prosaic. Ressler groups them broadly into the "organised" and the "opportunistic"; and while the former group of killers may achieve astonishing body counts and, like Bundy, effectively cavity wall insulate entire properties with the corpses of their victims, there is still nothing remotely aesthetic or intellectualised about their compulsive carnage.

Thomas Harris is, of course, quite capable of depicting what a real (or at any rate semi-real) serial killer might be like. In the two prequels to Hannibal, Red Dragon (1981) and The Silence of the Lambs (1988), he limns two such characters: Francis Dolorhyde, a photographic technician who was sexually abused as a child; and Jame Gumb, a transvestite tailor with a bespoke line in human leatherwear. Both of these men are extremely frightening, and provide the real tension in these novels. In Red Dragon it is Will Graham, an FBI agent who has himself been attacked by Lecter who requires the evil doctor's assistance to get his man; and in The Silence of the Lambs it is the upwardly mobile Clarice Starling who finds herself drawn into a sinister intimacy with him if she wishes to find Jame Gumb before he kills again.

Hannibal is the novel all serious Lecter fans have been waiting for. It's the book where Lecter, at last, moves out of the shadows of the narrative in order to take centre stage. The action begins in Washington DC, some seven years after the conclusion of the events which comprise The Silence of the Lambs. By placing the action in, as it were, the "real time" of the reader, Harris manages to enhance the plausibility of his tale. The seven years since she captured Jame Gumb have not been kind to Clarice Starling. Her career in the FBI has stalled, and she now finds herself on a drug raid which goes drastically wrong, ending in the shooting, by Starling, of several suspects.

It's Starling's status as a multiple killer, and her arraignment on charges of professional misconduct, which draws the good doctor out of his retirement in Florence. Lecter feels - with some justification as we discover - that he and Clarice Starling have a very particular sympathy. But one of Lecter's early victims, the millionaire meat packer Mason Verger, is determined to capture him first. Verger, paraplegic and confined to a respirator since Lecter arranged for some crazed dogs to eat his face off during a little auto-erotic bondage session, has limitless resources and an appetite for cruelty which almost surpasses Lecter's own. It is Verger's avowed aim to feed Lecter, very slowly, to a specially bred pack of wild pigs.

In the last seven years Dr Hannibal Lecter has been enjoying his hard- won freedom in the way we would hope. The action of the novel finds him in Florence, having dispatched his predecessor, and living under the name "Dr Fell", occupying the position of curator of the Palazzo Camponi. Indeed, we are informed that this is the only murder Lecter has committed for some time - not that he's mellowed or anything.

The Florentine sections of the novel allow Harris to develop his astonishing portrait of the inside of Hannibal Lecter's mind. We know from the earlier books that Lecter is a mnemonist of an unusual kind, able to internally adjust time so that he may quietly wander the precincts of his own psyche. But in Hannibal this conceit is enlarged to depict the entire scope of Lecter's "memory palace"; a four-dimensional building containing all the art works, texts and enactments of torture which he wishes to preserve intact.

In the weeks before this novel's publication there has been much speculation as to the character of Thomas Harris himself. Such is the hold that the character of Hannibal Lecter has exerted on the popular imagination, we feel certain that his creator must be tainted by his awesome charisma. In truth, as Robert Ressler has observed, and as we can detect by reading between the lines of his novels, there's nothing creepy at all about Harris. In Hannibal - as in the other books - the author has ample space beautifully to indulge his rather dilettante interests. You'll come away from this book knowing a great deal more about Renaissance Italian history as well as sadistic surgery. I imagine Harris himself to be very much like his own author photograph, which depicts a jolly, middle-aged American in a double-breasted blazer and cravat. I can picture him - with Lecter- like fidelity - taking tea at Brown's Hotel off Piccadilly, before heading on to visit the Sir John Soane Museum.

For, the paradox about Dr Hannibal Lecter is that his charisma, his intellect and his impeccable manners make him a shocking rather than a terrifying fictional creation. There is plenty of Grande Guignol in Hannibal, including a graceful defenestration-cum-hanging, and a dinner party with live human brain on the menu, but the high aesthetics of these horrors renders them piquant and interesting rather than horrifying and revolting. I fear that we all know that evil is not simply banal - it's also incredibly ugly.

No, Hannibal Lecter's capacity for taste makes him the Damien Hirst of serial killers. In these books, Harris is really ironically commenting on our own collective anxieties about discorporation; and about the way modern technologies can - with awesome precision - part head from heart. And in the action scenes of Hannibal, which are marvellously choreographed, we become aware as well that Hannibal Lecter, with his balletic yet lethal arabesques, is also the James Bond of serial killers: demonstrating that with the right gadgets and the right can-do attitude, we can all, potentially, evade death.

Hannibal grips from the very beginning like a crazed dog on Mason Verger's face. And while it's the devilish detail which makes this book a delight to read, the revelations concerning Lecter's own psychology, and that of Clarice Starling, make it imperative that you get to the end. The tension between my desire to savour this story and find out what happens was deliciously awful. Harris does have the unfortunate proclivity of contemporary genre writers for mixing his tenses - continuous past, continuous present etc - in order to impart immediacy to his text, but thankfully he's a good enough writer to pull it off. Indeed, I'd say that, like Raymond Chandler and Georges Simenon before him, Harris is that most unusual of things, a genre writer who supersedes and transfigures the genre he has chosen to write in. I raise my glass of Chateau d'Yquem to him.

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