Why Hannibal's fans send a shiver down my spine

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The Independent Online
ne of the most depressing sentences I read last week fell from the pen of a Cambridge don called Dr Eric Griffiths. Writing in praise of the latest novel by Thomas Harris, the American thriller writer, Dr Griffiths concluded, "What scares us about Lecter is that he is a 'Dr'."

Dr Griffiths himself, if the newspapers are to be believed, is not above trying to be a bit scary. Some readers will remember the story of a schoolgirl being summoned for an interview at Dr Griffiths's college, and being shown a page of Greek. He was then kind enough to inform her that she probably would not understand the "funny squiggly letters" since she had the misfortune to come from Essex. There were a number of other insults, which enabled the Doctor - scare-ree!! - to reduce his visitor to tears. The college apologised to the girl's school, and Dr Griffiths's mum told the Press that he was a lovely boy really. Still, at 60, she was waiting for him to bring a girlfriend home.

"What scares us about Lecter is that he is a Dr."

Why did a shiver pass down my spine when I read these words? It was not the thought of Anthony Hopkins earning millions by speaking in a silly voice. As it happens, I do not find Dr Hannibal Lecter especially terrifying. Just as Keats did not like poetry which has designs on us, I don't like novels which come at me labelled "read me if you dare". Hannibal rhymes with Cannibal - geddit? Lecter is a combination of Lecher and Lictor - as well as being a homophone for a Reader or a clever-clogs. Dr Lecter, who does even scarier things to people than exposing their Essex origins, and who is even more of a foody than the greatest high-table gourmandiser, never once strikes this reader as real.

So why did I shudder when I read the Doctor's verdict on the latest Hannibal Lecter story? Involuntarily, my shudder was followed by saying aloud to myself those lines from Betjeman: "Even today,/When all the way from Cambridge comes a wind/To blow the lamps out every time they're lit,/I know that I must light mine up again."

Prejudices die hard. I'm sure Oliver Cromwell's university is full of warm-hearted and well-rounded dons. But gut prejudice tells me that there is something rather typical about Griffiths - whom I've never met, and don't want to meet.

As that great Oxford book, the Autobiography of R G Collingwood, emphasises, there is a relation between what we enjoy reading and how we behave in life. Witness my dear old tutor at Oxford, John Bayley, as a young man writing a book called The Characters of Love - a celebration of real character and warmth in literature - and in old age writing Iris, his account of 40 years' married love, which ended with him caring for his wife with Alzheimer's. He never made his pupils cry - no one ever emerged from his presence without feeling life was richer and funnier.

The Evening Standard, which mysteriously employs Eric Griffiths as a reviewer, carried an article not long ago by its literary editor, David Sexton, which described Hannibal Lecter as "an immortal to rank alongside Sherlock Holmes". The connection, one presumes, is that Holmes and Lecter are both, like Dr Griffiths, "clever".

The illusion peddled by Thomas Harris in his thrillers is that it is possible to solve crime by purely scientific methods. With sufficient psychiatric skill (and Harris and his followers appear to believe that psychiatry, as opposed to psychology, is a science) you can build up such an accurate portrait of a serial killer that you will eventually identify him.

But there the comparisons with Sherlock Holmes end. Holmes's scientific methods are in any case absurd and any reader can tell that he proceeds largely on instinct. Why we enjoy the Holmes stories so much is because of the essential benignity of the creation, and of the familiar rooms in Baker Street, the kindliness of the pair of friends who set out to unveil so many grotesque cases. Hannibal Lecter is simply nasty. The clever thing about the earlier novels in which he appeared was that he was confined for most of the narrative in a cell for the criminally insane. In this new novel, simply called Hannibal, Harris has discarded the formula which enlivened his earlier wooden "police procedurals" and created a work which is undiluted porn.

In this story, Clarice Starling, the female cop who gets so much important information out of Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs, is entirely corrupted by him. The scene is already notorious, in which, under the influence of drugs, she eats slithers of the brain of Krendler, the man who has held her back in her career. Critics have divided between those who are disgusted by the relish of Harris's description, and those who openly confess that they have been salivating for this stuff for 10 years. But neither school gives enough emphasis to the fact that it is just twaddle. The scene is laughably badly written. And the whole mystery of Lecter's character is unveiled with some absolutely leaden revelations about his childhood traumas.

Hannibal is very, very nasty and not very skilful - but I would not want it banned.

The fans do not seem like the kind of people who would themselves become serial killers. They make themselves sound like bespectacled nerds, swots who fantasise that one day they'll get their revenge on all the happy normal children in the playground. I think that must be the appeal of Hannibal Lecter. The question for the taxpayer which it raises - since Dr Griffiths wrote his appreciation - is how many university teachers are there out there who identify with the two-dimensional, man-eating polymath? Should we be paying their wages?