Frightful Feast

Hungry For Suspense? 'Hannibal' Is Filling, If Not Entirely Satisfying.

Hannibal, by Thomas Harris (Delacorte Press). Cloth, $27.95.

NO WRITER, NOT even Elmore Leonard, has had a greater influence on American crime fiction in the last decade than Thomas Harris. Author of Red Dragon and Silence of the Lambs, Harris is primarily responsible for a whole new genre: the serial killer novel. Others did it first, in both fiction and non-fiction, but the success of Silence of the Lambs eclipsed everything that came before it. Harris' influence has been pervasive; there are now more serial killers in fiction than in the real world. Harris also created a new hero type, the profiler. Of course, these creations were not entirely original. They were inspired by real people and events, as many of the best novels are.

Harris himself is a bit of an oddity, a suspense writer who shuns the public eye, avoids interviews, produces books very slowly and yet has been hugely successful. Fans of Silence of the Lambs, as well as those purists who recognize Red Dragon as Harris' best book, have been waiting eagerly for his new work. For eight years, we've been waiting.

So, is Hannibal worth the wait (and the $27.95 cover price)? I guess that depends on how much you make an hour. I paid 20 bucks and although I wasn't entirely unhappy, if I had it to do over again I'd wait for the paperback.

Hannibal opens, appropriately enough, eight years after the events of Silence of the Lambs. Clarice Starling is an FBI field agent. Stymied by bureau politics, she has never made it to Behavioral Science, the FBI's serial killer section run by Jack Crawford, where she made a splash as an academy trainee. As the story opens, she's taking part in a drug bust by a multi-agency narcotics task force. Somebody tips the media, the bust goes bad, and next thing you know, Starling is on CNN gunning down a woman with a baby in her arms every half hour for a couple of days. Starling, as they say, is jammed up on the bust. Soon she is called to the carpet and is just about to be hung out to dry by a group of her bosses -- organized by her nemesis in the Justice Department, Paul Krendler -- when she gets a sudden reprieve. As it turns out, a mysterious political donor has pulled strings to save her career. The donor is Mason Verger, a patient-turned-victim of Dr. Hannibal Lecter. He has learned that following the failed drug raid, Starling received a consoling note from Lecter. Verger wants Starling back on duty, hunting down Lecter. He isn't interested in bringing Lecter to justice. He wants revenge because Dr. Lecter ate his face.

If you're a fan of Red Dragon and Silence of the Lambs, you need read no further. Pick up a copy of Hannibal. You'll be frustrated and not entirely satisfied, but you'll also enjoy it and think for the most part it's a pretty good book, with several truly fine moments. It is not as good as Silence of the Lambs, much less Red Dragon, but it is a very different novel. After stumbling a little in the early chapters, Harris avoids the error of repeating himself. I admire him for that. It would have been easy for him to simply rewrite his last book, as so many successful suspense writers do.

The worst of Hannibal is in the first hundred pages, where Harris doesn't have nearly as good a handle on Starling the FBI agent as he did on Starling the academy trainee. We see her running around and doing a lot of stuff, but Harris doesn't really get inside her head, doesn't tell us how she feels about her mostly unsuccessful career. Is she frustrated? Has she changed? Is she the same? I still don't know. And Harris seems to have a strange compulsion to make references to the events of Silence of the Lambs in ways that are awkward and do not serve to advance the plot. When Starling visits the abandoned building of the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane to locate old files that may help her track down Lecter, for instance, Harris writes: "Here Hospital Director Chilton had offered his greasy hand, and come on to her. Here he had traded secrets and eavesdropped and, believing he was as smart as Hannibal Lecter, had made decisions that allowed Lecter to escape with so much bloodshed." Those who've read Silence of the Lambs will already know this, and those who haven't won't care.

It's also in the first hundred pages that Harris seems to stumble with his stylistic alteration between present and past tense. Harris often introduces a character or place in the present tense, then reverts to past tense in telling the story. Early in Hannibal, though, the transitions feel awkward and forced.

The best part of the book is the section recounting Lecter's adventures in Florence. There, the story takes on a life all its own. As in his earlier novels, Harris appears to have done a thorough job of researching Florentine Italy, and he uses the background well. Hannibal Lecter in Florence is like Jim Chee on the Navajo Reservation, or Chili Palmer in Hollywood, a perfect match of character and setting. Harris also has a fine way of using these elements to take one extra twist, turning the mirror back on his audience, as when Lecter wanders dreamily through a special museum exhibit: "The exposition of Atrocious Torture Instruments could not fail to appeal to a connoisseur of the worst in mankind. But the essence of the worst, the true asafoetida of the human spirit, is not found in the Iron Maiden or the whetted edge; Elemental Ugliness is found in the faces of the crowd."

Unfortunately, it ends all too soon. As the book moves back to the United States it becomes pretty standard suspense novel stuff, a chase followed by a shoot-out. The denouement, however, is unexpected, fascinating and creepy. I won't say any more except that it is surprisingly un-cinematic. It doesn't rise to an explosive climax like its predecessors. Instead it wanders to a dreamy, un-good ending. You have to like Harris for that.

Hannibal also contains some juicy morsels of deadpan horror, as when, late in the novel, Verger plans his terrible revenge on Lecter: "A pig is not like other animals. There is a spark of intelligence and terrible practicality in pigs. These were not at all hostile. They just liked to eat men."

On the whole, it seems Harris has a little trouble getting untracked, but eventually works his way into writing a novel better than most. Ultimately, Hannibal stands on its own, though as to sheer edge-of-your-seat suspense, it produces little.

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