Hannibal Rising, by Thomas Harris

Another slice of Lecter's life
Click to follow

In a turreted castle in the forests of Lithuania, the notorious 14th-century "Hannibal the Grim" flung his enemies into an oubliette to rot. Around 1940, Count Lecter's precocious son Hannibal, "of his line and not of his line", was lowered into the old stone well as a treat (or what passed for a treat up at Castle Lecter). Scratched by a dying man, a desperate question survived on the wall: "Pourquoi?"

Why another Hannibal Lecter novel, fourth of its line since the former crime reporter Thomas Harris first fashioned his cultivated cannibal a full quarter-century ago, in Red Dragon? Of course, since Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster's double act in The Silence of the Lambs, the serial-slayer franchise has grown into a global brand, almost as bankable as Bond. And as Hannibal himself broke free of the page to grab the sort of folkloric autonomy only ever granted to a very few invented characters, curiosity about his origins was piqued.

Now Harris has written the prequel. Hannibal Rising tracks our homicidal "hero" through the mind-warping traumas of woodland battles on the Eastern Front and into a postwar Soviet orphanage. A pampered French adolescence ensues with an artist uncle and his Japanese wife, Lady Murasaki, followed by a career as a medical student in Paris. We leave Hannibal in the early 1950s, as the newly appointed intern at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore takes the train from Quebec, "striking southward toward America". By this time, he has half a dozen gruesomely ingenious kills to his credit.

So does Hannibal Rising answer that question: why? Not really, although it has plenty of charnel-house fun while failing to do so. Harris is no Dostoyevsky, and this novel ranks as one more superior shocker rather than an incisive dissection of the psychopathic mind. He gives you the sinews of horror, not its soul, and this book accounts for the modus operandi of the "monster" we already know.

As a stylist, the over-lauded Harris indulges in a low-temperature elegance that mimics the clinical "detachment" of his subject. Hannibal, you feel, would aspire to write much as his creator does. The Lady Murasaki sections succumb too often to a sort of Japanese designer kitsch, as Lady M alludes solemnly to Hiroshima and promises to be "warm rain" for Hannibal's "scorched earth".

By the time Hannibal is scuttling around Paris to pick off the Nazi-loving Lithuanian crooks who did so nastily for his little sister, the novel has slipped into effective but standard-issue action sequences. Why, beyond the vast pulling power that Hollywood bestows, has a talented but limited crime writer attracted such preposterous praise? The silliest swooning has come from literary types who know next to nothing of the great American noir tradition. They mistake Harris's incessant high-culture chatter for genuine artistic ambition.

This novel carries a jacket quote equating Harris with Goethe and Gogol as an anatomist of evil. Let's hope that the sucker who wrote that will now have the grace to eat their words - partnered, Hannibal-style, with some fava beans and a nice big Amarone.