Thomas Harris reveals the origins of his most famous creation Can anyone think of chianti (or fava beans) without also remembering literature's most urbane serial killer? Hannibal Lecter, the murderous cannibal with a brilliant mind and a flawless sense of style and etiquette, has intrigued readers since 1981, when Thomas Harris introduced the character in Red Dragon. Harris has written two other books about Lecter, both of which were made into films (most memorably, Silence of the Lambs, which won an Oscar for Best Picture in 1991). In all of these works, tantalizing clues about Hannibal Lecter are revealed: He is European, well-educated and a former doctor. But little is said about his formative years, and his famously publicity-shy creator (who declines all interviews) hasn't seen fit to enlighten curious fans.

Until now. In Hannibal Rising, Harris satisfies readers' need to know just what makes a man of culture and intelligence into a monster. The firstborn son of a wealthy Eastern European count, Hannibal Lecter was born and raised in 500-year-old Lecter Castle. His childhood is made up of lessons with his tutor and playing with his little sister, Mischa, on the castle grounds, until Hitler's Operation Barbarossa sweeps through, and SS troops demolish the countryside as part of their ill-fated campaign against Russia.

Hannibal and his family go into hiding on their country estate, but they are unable to completely escape the war, and Count Lecter and his wife are killed in the crossfire when the Germans and Russians clash nearby. After the attack, looters take the children captive. Hannibal is the only one who survives, and he is found stumbling through the frozen countryside, unable to speak. After a short stay in an orphanage, the 13-year-old is reunited with his uncle in Paris. Hannibal begins to speak again, and he forms an especially close bond with his uncle's beautiful Japanese wife, Lady Murasaki, who understands the pain that comes when your homeland and family are destroyed. His intelligence is recognized, and he becomes the youngest medical school graduate in France. But he never talks about what happened to Mischa except when he awakens from grisly nightmares, screaming her name. Eventually, he remembers the horrific circumstances of her death, and his darker urges drive him to take revenge on the men who made him into a monster.

Harris keeps the suspense (and blood) flowing at a steady pace in Hannibal Rising, which has more than its share of gory images. He has a knack for portraying the animal nature that lies beneath humankind's veneer of civilization, as in this description of the looters: Through the bars of the banister he saw Grutas licking a bloody birdskin, throwing it to the others, and they fell on it like dogs. Grutas' face was smeared with blood and feathers. Though the reader may cringe when Hannibal eventually exacts his violent revenge, they can't feel that these brutes don't deserve it.

As he did with his 1999 novel Hannibal, Harris worked on the screenplay for Hannibal Rising even as he completed the novel. This month, fans will be able to see young Hannibal on the big screen, portrayed by French actor Gaspard Ulliel (A Very Long Engagement). Li Gong (Memoirs of a Geisha) plays Lady Murasaki. Directed by Peter Webber, the film is scheduled for release nationwide on February 9.

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