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Long-awaited sequel disappoints

By Rebecca Loh

Written by Thomas Harris

Delacorte Press, 1999, 484 pp., $27.95

It has been over a decade since The Silence of the Lambs was first published, but at last readers are allowed another peek into the world of Clarice Starling and Dr. Lecter in Thomas Harris’s new book Hannibal. While the novel is an entertaining page-turner, readers are likely to be turned off by the shockingly gruesome aspects of the story, as well as the disappointingly flat characters and unbelievable ending.

The story picks up seven years after Dr. Hannibal Lecter helped FBI trainee Clarice Starling catch the notorious serial killer known as Buffalo Bill. Lecter has since been living as a free man, having escaped from imprisonment at the height of the Buffalo Bill frenzy. Starling has become a competent and efficient FBI agent, yet has somehow failed to rise in the ranks of the Bureau.

Enter Mason Verger, Dr. Lecter’s sixth victim. His face horribly mangled and his body mostly paralyzed, Verger has spent years planning his revenge on the doctor by having him --get this -- devoured by a pack of flesh-eating pigs. The only problem is that Verger must first catch Hannibal, a feat the FBI has been unable to accomplish for seven years.

Aside from the flesh-eating pigs, it appears that author Thomas Harris has set up his long-awaited sequel quite nicely. Indeed, the book has much to offer. Hannibal the Cannibal is one of the most interesting characters in recent fiction, and this book grants a delicious look into his life. Readers are given a tour of Dr. Lecter’s mind and a glimpse into his childhood. The novel shows how startlingly human Lecter is, while at the same time the book maintains his superhuman qualities.

As always, Harris’s writing is well-researched, and full of vivid descriptions and tight action. The part of the novel taking place in Florence makes for especially good reading. Florence’s Chief Investigator Rinaldo Pazzi believes he has found Dr. Lecter hiding in his city. In order to claim Mason Verger’s reward money, Pazzi must catch Lecter and return him alive, without arousing the suspicion of the local police. The section drips with detailed descriptions of artwork, architecture, and history of Florence as the reader follows Pazzi’s relentless pursuit of Lecter.

In spite of its entertaining qualities, Hannibal is not without fault. Many have complained that the novel is unnecessarily graphic, and it is, in fact, much more gruesome than Harris’s other works. Mason Verger is a constant reminder of how macabre the novel is. A former patient of Dr. Lecter’s, Verger now sits useless in his bed after Hannibal gave him powerful hallucinatory drugs and then instructed him to cut off his own face with a glass shard. Harris throws in details of Verger’s lipless smile and single, lidless eye on numerous occasions for no reason other than to shock his readers.

While the excessive reliance on shock tactics is unsatisfactory, Harris’s biggest shortcoming by far is in the characters he creates. For the most part, there are clear-cut good guys and bad guys, and very few characters fall somewhere in between. Dr. Lecter, being the central character of the novel, is spared from this careless treatment, but the rest of the characters are not so fortunate. Clarice Starling sparkles only under the mental prodding of Hannibal. Otherwise, she is little more than an efficient FBI agent doing her duty for most of the novel and behaving inexplicably at the end of it. Paul Krendler, Starling’s supervisor, who spends the majority of his time doing anything to advance his career, is a truly flat character. With no redeeming qualities to speak of, Krendler is to Hannibal what Dr. Chilton was to Silence of the Lambs: the guy you have to hate. Aside from spending his free time thwarting Starling’s career because she rejected his sexual advances, Krendler proves to be a bully and a fool; his comments are always inappropriate.

The most dissatisfying character of the book, however, is Hannibal’s lead villain Mason Verger. In addition to his horrific physical appearance, Verger proves to be even more appalling as the reader learns more about him. While Harris provides many details about Verger, each new fact only serves to make readers despise him more. The man is simply too disgusting to be believable. Unlike Francis Dolarhyde, the serial killer from Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon, the reader never comes to identify with Verger. Dolarhyde’s actions are shown as a product of his painful childhood, and he proves to have the ability to change for the better. Verger, on the other hand, appears to have been born bad. He is inexplicably cruel from his youth, and his run-in with Dr. Lecter merely inconveniences his habit of abusing children. Ultimately, it is Dolarhyde’s complexity that makes Red Dragon good, and it is Verger’s lack of complexity that makes Hannibal fall flat.

Sadly, Thomas Harris’s newest book is the worst of his three Hannibal Lecter novels. It makes for good, mindless summer reading, but fans of his earlier works are sure to be disappointed. In addition to the gratuitous gore and poor character development, I found the ending to be completely unbelievable. The book’s outcome required the characters to behave in an unbelievable manner. If you can somehow overlook these faults, you may enjoy Hannibal, though I recommend picking up a copy of The Silence of the Lambs or, even better, Red Dragon instead.