It has finally happened: Hannibal Lecter has become a pop cliche. Opening seven years after Lecter's dramatic escape, Hannibal gets off to an appropriately grisly start: a showdown between DC drug dealers and a hodgepodge of feds, including a salty thirtysomething Clarice Starling. Starling, now a SWAT-type bad girl, kills several people and is hauled in front of an investigating committee, headed up by Paul Krendler from the Justice Department, who's held a grudge ever since she beat him to serial killer Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs. Krendler also happens to be on the private payroll of one of Lecter's surviving victims. Mason Verger is quite the monster himself, another demented patient Lecter chose to toy with rather than treat. Lecter's ministrations have left Verger paralyzed and horribly disfigured, and thirsty for revenge. Wealthy and influential, he has assembled a bizarre and savage group to bring Lecter in and brutally torture him to death. Up pops the devil, in (where else?) Florence. A disguised Lecter has been deciphering medieval manuscripts in an attempt to trace his lineage. But he's discovered by a bent Italian cop, who sells him out to Verger. A murderous international chase ensues, while Starling thrashes in bureaucratic fetters, desperate to get into the action. But she, Verger, and Lecter are on a collision course, driven to each other by equal parts lust and hatred.
Hannibal is a novel of both revelation and conclusion. Significant missing pieces of Lecter's past, as well as the peculiar structure of his psychopathology, are unveiled throughout the book, by Starling and other pursuers as much as by Lecter himself. There is some closure given to the relations between the primary characters (Starling, Lecter) and the secondaries (FBI boss Jack Crawford, Barney the asylum orderly, Starling's dad no, really). This novel is quite different from Red Dragon or The Silence of the Lambs. The narrative style includes more descriptive passages and action sequences, as opposed to the hard-edged dialogue landscapes the author favored in previous books. Several strategically placed lines are nearly verbatim repetitions of Ted Tally's Lambs screenplay dialogue; Harris seems to use the film as a referent for backstory, a way of saying to the reader, There, now do you get it? The characters, though a bit older, seem to have lost some of their previous intelligent plasticity and have settled into pop caricatures (Starling as the Bionic Woman, Lecter as James Bond). The biggest surprise is Lecter, bursting all boundaries as he has his prison shackles, a being of such superhuman ability that he is now clinically classified as something Other than man.
Or at least he starts out that way. The reader learns that the very catalyst of his transformation (an unpleasant childhood matter with a sister, which for some reason hasn't surfaced until now) is nothing very different from the same banal trauma of the patients who bored him. The realm he rules is one of chaos, yet he hungers for one of order, and that undermines his inhuman appeal. Lecter may be questing for transvaluation, but ultimately he's just a man, with a man's fears and desires. It's strange to see Harris winding up this trilogy of humans on the edge with such a heavy-handed nod to humanity, but he appears to have had fun doing it. And with the immense publicity buzz, and the wheels of the film industry already turning, he has had the last laugh.
Adam Dunn writes for Current Diversions and Speak.