Two years ago, I picked up The Silence of the Lambs as my Halloween read, knowing it was a horror classic with a readily available film adaptation, but without realizing that it was actually the second book in a series. I had such a good time with it that last year I followed up by choosing Red Dragon as my Halloween read (the first book in the set), and this year I picked up the third, Hannibal (all three by Thomas Harris). Sadly, with Hannibal I found my first real disappointment of the series, and what a disappointment it was.
In the novel, seven years after Hannibal Lecter’s escape from custody, special agent Starling struggles to find her place in the FBI. It’s very much a man’s world, and she’s made enemies high up the chain of command who take pains to knock her back every time she tries to take a step forward. When a tip comes in that Lecter has fled Italy after causing some murderous havoc there, Starling is the one who chases the lead- from a dark basement storage room where no one expects she’ll find anything. Meanwhile, someone else is chasing Lecter as well; one of his earliest victims (who barely survived, aided by a lot of modern technology) is out for revenge. Verger has a lot of money, and was left in such poor physical state that he spends what’s left of his existence just thinking- about how to get Lecter away from the law and into his own hands. Can Starling bring Lecter back into official custody? Will Verger take her down to get to Lecter? Will Lecter escape them both? The answers are here, and they’re disturbing.
“That didn’t mean he wouldn’t kill me any second if he got the chance- one quality in a person doesn’t rule out any other quality. They can exist side by side, good and terrible.”
There seems to be one book every year in my busy work season that seems nearly impossible to finish and puts me in a big reading slump. Last year it was The Bachman Books, a set of four stories which I very much enjoyed, all but one. I was afraid the challenge this year might turn out to be Ducks, Newburyport, but fortunately that was such an excellent read that I didn’t have any trouble getting through its thousand pages. Instead, it was Hannibal I got stuck on.
There are so many things to dislike here. The book starts promisingly enough, with a very film-able shoot-out scene that turns out to be as much about bureau and media politics as about the adrenaline rush. Starling isn’t the same woman she was in The Silence of the Lambs, but it’s been seven years- some character development is to be expected, and there’s plenty of intrigue surrounding her place in the bureau and the future of her career. Soon after, the narration takes us to Italy, where Lecter is enjoying all the fine things in life, and a blacklisted cop there discovers his identity. We are also introduced to the story’s villain, Verger, who likes to make children cry and throw his money around to shape the world into what he wants it to be. But for all these intriguing starts, it doesn’t take long for the book to drag.
Problem number one: the plot trajectory becomes clear early on, and then stagnates while we wait for it to play out. Verger is making arrangements to torture and kill Lecter, and he’s got some powerful helpers, in addition to an endless supply of cash. The FBI (other than Starling) does not have any interest in Lecter. Or at least, no confidence in catching him, and thus they’re eager to look the other way. Starling is the wild card, but even so, any reasonably intelligent reader knows Lecter and Verger will have some sort of confrontation (why else even include Verger in this book?). And so, from the time the major players are introduced, to the time they all meet, hundreds of pages are spent on very little plot movement. There’s no forward momentum.
Problem two: What fills the pages instead is a whole lot of attention paid to Lecter’s superior “taste.” I suppose with the title of the book being what it is, we can expect that this novel is an exploration of Hannibal Lecter’s character, though the extent of it took me completely by surprise. We get lessons on the cars he insists on driving, the food he insists on eating (and cooking), the music he insists on listening to, the silverware he insists on using, the clothes he insists on wearing, etc. Brands and descriptions are numerous. I can’t speak for everyone of course, but I’ve learned the hard way (ahem, Discovery of Witches) that I will simply never care about any character’s list of favorite wines. For me, the surplus of these details quickly crossed the line past productive characterization into what seemed like Harris showing off his expertise on “good culture,” complete with travel details.
Problem three: Relatedly, almost everything about Lecter in this novel felt like Harris simply reveling in his most famous character being in the limelight. Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs certainly contain gruesome details (major trigger warnings in all three books for murder, torture, body horror, cannibalism, etc.), but those scenes featured infrequently, when they served the plot. In Hannibal, most (if not all) of the gory details felt gratuitous. This entire book honestly felt like a celebration of Hannibal the Cannibal, the most perfect murderer. He’s not presented as a villain here. He’s lauded. And it comes across as ridiculous.
“His ego, like his intelligence quota, and the degree of his rationality, is not measurable by conventional means.”
Problem four: The ending. Despite being published in the 1980’s and 90’s, most of the content in these three books hasn’t age too badly. Starling is a pretty great female lead in The Silence of the Lambs, and there’s not much in the way of insensitive commentary that wouldn’t fly today. But this ending. I don’t want to spoil it, but Harris completely ruins Starling’s character. Worse, he does it in a way that taints who she’s been and what her motivations have been since the first time she met Lecter, early in The Silence of the Lambs. In paving the way for Lecter to have a glorious ending, Harris pulls down everything else that was good about this series. His female lead. Excellent detective work. Morality. Ugh.
Problem five: There’s no one to root for anyway. After such disappointment in the ending, I had to go back and ask: what would I rather have happened? And I couldn’t answer it. Though Lecter is a fascinating character, he’s a nonetheless a villain. Verger mixes the tears of children he’s personally antagonized into his cocktails, and Starling, the obvious choice for a heroine, seems a shadow of her former self (especially as we approach the end- if you know you know). There isn’t anyone in this book that I wanted to “win,” or even felt good about. I don’t need to like the characters to like the book, but disliking all of the characters when that doesn’t seem intentional is the worst.
I usually try to soften my negative reviews by ending on some sort of positive note, or at least recommending it to an audience that I think will get on with it better. The best I can say here is that for the first third (or possibly even half), I didn’t hate this story yet, and there are a couple of scenes that I will remember mostly fondly (Krendler’s fate, for one). Also I suppose if you’re in this series for the gore (or for expensive wine recommendations), you might enjoy Hannibal. I think that’s as close as I can get to positivity here, I’m sorry. I sincerely hope that anyone who has already read or is planning to read this one has a better time with it than I did.
“We assign a moment to decision, to dignify the process as a timely result of rational and conscious thought. But decisions are made of kneaded feelings; they are more often a lump than a sum.”
My reaction: 2 out of 5 stars. I’m on the fence about reading book four, the final book in this series: Hannibal Rising. I believe it’s a prequel about Lecter’s early life and career (both as a doctor and as a cannibalistic murderer). The completionist in me wants to cross it off my list after getting this far in the series. But my lack of enjoyment with this book, and the reasons for it (mainly Lecter’s characterization) leave me thinking that I can’t possibly appreciate that book any more than I did this one. So, it might be time to move on to a new Halloween reading tradition.
What’s the worst book you’ve read lately?
The Literary Elephant