June 14, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT

To anyone familiar with Thomas Harris’ Dr. Hannibal Lecter — genius, aesthete, cannibal — it’s only natural to react with profoundly divided sympathies. Lecter, of course, is the most mischievously charismatic of all homicidal deviants. It’s not that he’s a psychopath, exactly. A ruthless, snuff-headline version of a Nietzschean superman, he’s brilliant and icy and witty and charming, yes, but unlike, say, a Nazi mastermind or Ted Bundy, he’s also supremely empathic. By killing and eating other people, he literally consumes their identities. (It helps that he feasts only on the rude.)

”Hannibal” is the third in Harris’ trilogy of serial murder and mayhem. The first of these novels, ”Red Dragon” (1981), is a masterpiece of clinical horror; it remains his best. With ”The Silence of the Lambs” (1988), Harris began to depart from the realities of actual psychopathic killers, and Hannibal is his gaudiest, most lavishly over-the-top book yet. It’s a purplish sick-puppy nightmare — Hitchcock by way of the Marquis de Sade. Yet it has Harris’ singular rapt malevolence.

His brilliance as a writer has always been his ability to lure you into a conspiratorial relationship with the most scandalous extremes of his imagination. He dredges up seething, twisted rage, the worst that humankind has to offer, yet we keep reading, compelled to touch the knife edge of our dread. By now, many of us are so wired into Harris’ work that we practically have a pact with him (and with Hannibal Lecter himself). ”Hannibal” fulfills that pact. Surgical in its suspense, Wagnerian in its depravity, it’s a baroque slaughterhouse spectacle of a novel — vast, pungent, pulpy, terrifying. It offers a mad carnival of demons.

Thomas Harris

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