Hannibal Rising, by Thomas Harris

Sympathy for the devil

Mark Timlin
Sunday 10 December 2006 01:00

H annibal Rising must be among the most eagerly anticipated crime/thriller novels of the year. The publishers obviously think so anyway, as I had to sign a three-page legal document, promising not to write about the book, discuss it, or possibly even speak its title above a whisper until the date of publication. And then it was biked round and hand-delivered in a plain brown wrapper. A bit like a porno mag, as I remember.

So what's it all about then? This is a prequel to the other Lecter novels, so in chapter one we find Hannibal, aged eight, with his little sister in Russia, sweetly feeding the swans who live on their land, as Hitler's Operation Barbarossa sweeps toward his home, bombs dropping and guns blazing. The family and servants leave Castle Lecter and head for the hills where they are safe, until in the last gasp of the war, the looters come.

Peace finds Hannibal back at the castle after being found wandering alone in the snow, a chain so deeply wound around his neck that it ripped flesh when it was removed, and left him permanently scarred. But his old home is no longer Lecter property; it is now an orphanage for the children of the dead. Hannibal is mute, and his memories of the last days in hiding are gone. But help is at hand as his uncle arrives and takes him to his château in the French countryside, where under the tender care of his beautiful Japanese stepmother, Lady Murasaki, he regains the power of speech, and when his uncle dies he takes on his birthright and becomes the last Count Lecter.

But beware, the sweet young boy has been changed by the loss of his family and the horrors he has witnessed during the conflict and one day he will have his revenge. Like all revenge, it's best served cold, as is illustrated when he commits his first bloody murder, that of a man who insulted his stepmother. At this point we are introduced to Inspector Popil of the Sûreté. Popil is determined to bring Hannibal to justice for the murder, but is frustrated at every turn by the young man's superior intellect and low cunning.

Hannibal is a prodigy at his studies, and a brilliant artist, and, after his uncle's house is sold for death duties, he and Lady Murasaki relocate to Paris, where he becomes the youngest person ever to be enrolled in French medical school. This gives him the chance to hone the skills of dissection that he'll use in later life to such dreadful ends. A sort of Harry Potter majoring in psychopathic horror. Eventually, Hannibal returns to Russia, where he discovers the identities of the looters and begins his long-anticipated journey of vengeance against those who hurt him and caused the deaths of his friends and family, as he pursues them across two continents in a wonderfully murderous climax to his childhood, before he leaves France to begin his reign of terror in America as a man, and maybe in another few years, we'll meet Lecter the intern, doing dirty deeds in LA County Hospital.

After Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs, I must say I was disappointed with Hannibal, Harris's last novel, because I found Clarice Starling insufferable. But Hannibal Rising is spot on. It's a superb work of blood and violence where the horrors of war are beautifully, if that's the right word, described, as Hannibal is forced into becoming the cannibal that will later be his trademark. I leave it to your imagination as to whom he feeds on. A loved one, is all I'll say.

In the end, the story of Hannibal's early life is tinged with a great sadness as the reader comes to realise that Hannibal Lecter the monster was created by circumstance rather than choice, and, even though his later actions are far beyond the pale, knowing what caused them, half a world away and a lifetime before, I couldn't help but feel sympathy for that little boy who so loved feeding the swans.

This novel is a sure-fire best seller and will be gobbled up by Harris's millions of fans world wide. No doubt the Hollywood studios are already queuing up to turn it into a film, and who can blame them with a work of this magnitude?

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