January 27, 2001 at 05:00 AM EST

Clarice is no match for Hannibal

The most curious disappointment in the new Thomas Harris novel ”Hannibal” (Delacorte) is that it’s so thin on characterization. For a guy who takes 11 years to birth a successor to his finely wrought horror novel ”The Silence of the Lambs,” Harris makes the same sort of mistake a book-a-year hack often does: He skimps on the details that will make us care about the person who is, theoretically at least, the protagonist of the book. In Harris’ case, that’s FBI agent Clarice Sterling, now 33 — ”alone, with a ruined civil service career.”

Since last tangling with the razor-toothed, silver-tongued Dr. Hannibal Lecter, Clarice’s work-ethic stubbornness and her resistance to the romantic overtures of Justice Dept. superior Paul Krendler have kept her on the slow track for a promotion. ”Hannibal” begins with an exciting, cinematically described shoot-out between Clarice and some drug-runners, a violent intervention that turns into a public-relations nightmare for the Bureau. Instead of earning her FBI brownie points, it only leads to an internal investigation in which Clarice is made the fall girl.

In none of this do we get much sense of what Clarice is like — her thoughts are either robotic or vague; she has all the personality of an FBI blue-serge suit. (If we didn’t carry in our heads the picture of Jodie Foster as Clarice from the ”Lambs” movie, Starling’s image would fade away to nothingness.) It’s a relief when Harris turns his attention to Lecter, who goes through various disguises and an interlude in Italy that would be rude to spoil with details here.

But Harris overloads his book with a third major character, Mason Verger, a former victim of Lecter’s sadism bent on revenge. Verger is as one-note a character as Clarice is here. Harris didn’t title this book ”Hannibal” for nothing. The erudite doc gets all the good scenes, but the author lavishes so much attention on him that this villain becomes, by the truly bizarre end of this book, its central figure.

The rococo violence in ”Hannibal,” which includes someone being killed with a moray eel stuffed down his throat, and another having his skull popped open so that Lecter can remove and sauté his brain, is properly repulsive: I give Harris full credit for doing the yeoman work a horror novelist should. But ultimately, ”Hannibal” is as hollow as that victim’s head, a baroquely phrased melodrama that loses its sense of focus. Bring Clarice back, Mr. Harris — breathe life into the only creation worthy to do battle with your master of intricate death.

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