In 1981’s Red Dragon, Thomas Harris’ first Lecter novel, the cunning, diabolical killer manipulates a psychotic murderer and a detective, even though he is ensconced in his cell, perusing Alexandre Dumas’ Le Grand Dictionnaire de Cuisine. I lay in bed reading Red Dragon one night, immersed in the story — but also suddenly, dreadfully alert to all the night sounds pouring in my window: wind-rustled leaves, distant train whistles, footsteps on the street (dog walkers, I hoped, and not serial killers). When I closed the book, I was gripped with heart-thumping fear.
Unfortunately, Harris’s next outing, The Silence of the Lambs, didn’t thrill me nearly as much (though I enjoyed the movie, since Anthony Hopkins was terrific as Hannibal and Jodie Foster nearly as good as FBI agent Clarice Starling). The third volume, Hannibal, made me grit my teeth in annoyance. Not only did it read like a Frommer’s guide to Florence, I thought the last chapter — which followed Hannibal and Clarice to their new life together in South America — was absurd.
It was with some trepidation that I approached Hannibal Rising, billed as a prequel, which skids into stores just before the movie’s opening in February. I knew I was in trouble when the prologue promised the reader could ”watch as the beast within turns from the teat and, working upwind, enters the world.”
Hannibal, no surprise, turns out to be descended from one Hannibal the Grim. But the real cause of his depravity has less to do with his aptly named ancestor than with what happened to his family during World War II after they fled their Eastern European castle, ahead of the Nazis. Specifically, the fate of his little sister Mischa (who, cutely enough, once called her big brother ”Anniba”) is the key to his psyche. Though astute readers of Hannibal already know that Mischa was eaten, the particulars have never before been revealed. How Mischa was consumed, and how Lecter avenged her death, is the story here, and it’s told in choppy fashion, with stilted dialogue and paper-thin characters (the beautiful Japanese woman, the dogged police inspector, the evil Russian army deserters). The violence, though stunning, is so poorly described it doesn’t frighten.
Harris will rightly be remembered as the creator of Hannibal Lecter, who is, in many ways, the best and worst of humanity combined — not to mention a cannibal gourmand, the only one I know of in literature. But Harris should have stifled Lecter after Silence. Hannibal gave me indigestion, and Hannibal Rising didn’t leave me hungry for more either.