Tangled Web UK Review June 1999
File Updated: 30/03/00
Hannibal Hannibal by Thomas Harris
hbk out June 99 Published by Random House Audio at 12.99
It is a mark of the power of The Silence of the Lambs that the publication of its long-awaited sequel has been the publishing event of the year. Hannibal the Cannibal and his battle of wits with tyro FBI agent Clarice Starling captured the imagination of millions, leaving its creator with a hard act to follow.
Harris having invented the serial killer/psychological profiler novel, no-one would have blamed him for following his own formula in Hannibal. Instead, he has taken as his model the structure of the traditional romantic fiction where a pair of antagonists must overcome obstacles and battle opposition to arrive at true love.
Of course, in the hands of a master craftsman like Harris, this is no Mills and Boon happy-ever-after. Not so much Four Weddings and a Funeral as Mass Carnage and a Dinner Party, this is a breathtaking journey into the darkest recesses of the human soul, revealing desires and passions that should bring nightmares in their wake. In spite of this, Hannibal is a curious reaffirmation of the human spirit.
The book opens seven years after the first defining encounter between Starling and Hannibal Lecter. Starling's superhuman efforts to capture the Buffalo Bill serial killer by persuading Lecter to allow her access to his intimate knowledge of the psychology of the killer have failed to give her the professional boost she deserved. Instead, petty envies, inter-agency rivalries and personal antipathies have stalled her career. Rather than becoming a profiler in the Behavioural Sciences Unit, where her talents would have flourished, she has ended up as the law enforcement equivalent of a lavatory cleaner.
Meanwhile, Lecter is still at loose. In spite of his continuous presence on the FBI's website of the Ten Most Wanted criminals, no-one seems to have a clue where he is indulging his particular appetites for fine wine, high culture and human flesh.
No-one, that is, except Mason Verger. All that survives of him after Lecter's murderous attack is burning desire. His ruined face and wasted body are kept alive by the technology that wealth can supply, but the real life force that courses through him is the need for vengeance. Money may not be able to buy love, but Verger knows it can buy revenge.
From his hi-tech bed, Verger casts his web of depravity across the world, tempting the venal into corruption to further his perverted dream. His plan is to watch Lecter watch his own death in a terrible parody of the killer's own methods.
When Starling is involved in a drug raid that goes horribly wrong, she is set to be the sacrificial lamb that will allow the FBI to wash its hands of the disaster. But when Lecter responds to her impending disgrace with his first communication for seven years, Verger realises that she is the perfect stalking horse to flush out his prey.
But Lecter is no easy target, and Verger's ploy unleashes a nightmare of blood and torment whose final resolution is among the strangest yet most convincing in the canon of psychological suspense. It is a truism of psychological profiling that those who achieve greatest empathy with the twisted appetites of the serial killer are those who themselves carry damage. In Clarice Starling, Harris has created a figure both emotionally fractured and passionately driven by an honest desire for justice.
But as Nietzsche warns so eloquently, 'Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And when you look into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you.' That is the terrible dilemma that Starling faces. For in Hannibal Lecter, Thomas Harris has given the world its most charming, accomplished and cultured psychopath.
Hannibal is a riveting exploration of the paradoxes that underpin human behaviour, wooing its readers as assuredly as Lecter woos his victims. More than that, it is a marvel of construction, studded with passages of brilliant prose that provoke thought and, in spite of the page-turning quality of the story-telling, force the reader to pause and savour as Lecter himself savours the tastes and smells of his world.
Few novels are worth waiting eleven years for. Hannibal is.


( Val McDermid - Gold Dagger winner & creator of Lindsay Gordon, Kate Brannigan & Tony Hill)

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