The cultural cannibal bites back

Hannibal by Thomas Harris (Arrow £6.99)
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

It's seven years on from The Silence of the Lambs, and Dr Hannibal "The Cannibal" Lecter is living a cultured and contented life in Florence. Intermittently he logs on to the FBI's website to make sure his resemblance on their Most Wanted list is still outdated, but the only person he has killed is the curator of the Palazzo Vecchio, whose position he covets. Clarice Starling, meanwhile, has not progressed as far up the FBI's ranks as she deserves, and Hannibal opens with her on loan to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms for a routine drugs bust. It goes wrong, of course, and Starling has to shoot five suspects dead. This gets her a lot of bad press coverage, opening the way for her detractors to have her suspended and left out in the cold. Which is important, because Clarice and Hannibal's shared history, and the expectations weighing on this sequel, demanded so much more than a routine procedural narrative of law enforcer tracking criminal.

As in Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs, Lecter is not the real villain of this book. That honour goes to Mason Verger, heir to a meat-packing fortune and former paedophile, who was once assigned to Lecter for therapy. Lecter's unusual therapeutic methods included suggesting he might like to peel his face off with broken glass, breaking his neck and feeding him to hungry dogs.

Confined to a respirator and reduced to drinking the tears of disadvantaged children for kicks, this never-before-mentioned sole surviving victim of Lecter's makes a deliciously dastardly villain as he uses his fortune and political influence to plot his revenge.

In this way, one of the most memorable antiheroes of recent times is carefully constructed as a sympathetic figure, even if his devious, superhuman mind precludes him from victimhood. Unlike the victims of other mass murderers, his are all in some way "deserving". He is a man of impeccable taste and manners - even his threats are delivered with chilling urbanity: "On a related subject, Signore Pazzi, I must confess to you: I'm giving serious thought to eating your wife."

Hannibal has a simple plot but rich detail which rarely halts the rapid escalation of tension and pace. Best of all, we learn a little about Lecter's childhood and catch maddeningly brief glimpses into his pathology, although Harris is careful to keep Hannibal as somehow "other", to maintain our macabre fascination with him.

By comparison, Mason Verger remains one-dimensional. And most disappointingly, Clarice's character is under-explored, the emotionally revealing exchanges with Lecter that so enriched The Silence of the Lambs being saved for a surreal, ambiguous coda that leaves the reader desperate for the next instalment.