The expatriate novelist Gore Vidal has observed that there are no longer any famous novelists. He meant that in today's internet age no author can achieve the level or fame that F. Scott Fitzgerald or Ernest Hemingway had fifty years ago.
But there are still some names on the best seller list that are almost as well known as mid-level celebrities like Danny Bonaduce and Nicole Richie. Hell, even Anne Rice and Stephen King are famous enough to get recognized in the street and appear on Regis and Kelly.
Thomas Harris has pulled off the rare trick of writing multi-million selling novels like Silence of the Lambs (1988) and creating the most memorable anti-hero of the last quarter century, Dr. Hannibal Lecter without doing the talk show circuit or any print interviews.
As reclusive as J. D. Salinger or Thomas Pynchon, Harris emerges every five or ten years with a new novel, and fans have been anxiously awaiting Hannibal Rising (323 pages, Delacourte Press). After allowing Lecter to fade slowly into the sunset with Clarice Starling in his last novel, it appeared that Harris had closed the door on the cannibalistic therapists' saga. What new story was there to tell?
The seeds of Hannibal Rising first appear in the few hints of Lecter's early life that Harris sprinkled in his previous books. Hannibal (1999) hinted at a privileged childhood in pre-WWII Europe until starving Russian soldiers murder his parents and kill and eat his little sister Mischa. Suddenly the good Doctor's culinary predilections seem a little easier to understand. Hell, if that happened to you it might make you a little eccentric, too, wouldn't you think?
With Hannibal Rising, Harris has pulled a George Lucas, deciding to go back to tell the story of "Hannibal the Cannibal" from the beginning. The story was originally conceived as a screenplay for a film, which will be released in March. Italian film producer Dino deLaurentis owns the film rights to Harris' books and characters and apparently made Harris an offer he couldn't refuse (although it's hard to believe that the immensely wealthy and notoriously reclusive Harris needed the lira).
After committing to pen a screenplay about Hannibal's youth, a portrait of the serial killer as a young man originally titled Behind the Mask, Harris decided to also use the story for a novel. He signed a two book deal with his publisher, although it is anyone's guess whether the next and possibly final Harris book will be another Lecter story.
Hannibal Rising begins with the gruesome tale of his brutalization at the hands of the Russians, being rescued and placed in the care of his artist uncle and his Japanese wife, the elegant and refined Lady Murasaki. Of course things go badly and the final two thirds of the book is occupied with the swath of bloody revenge Hannibal exacts from those who have wronged him. Thus Harris has turned Hannibal from a monster in a cage into a wounded aesthete trapped in a world he never made.
While this reader enjoyed the book immensely, a glance at other reviews in print and online prove that this is a minority opinion. Many reviewers have been disappointed that the new story doesn't match with the sinister evil implied in the earlier books in the Lecter saga, Red Dragon (1981), Silence of the Lambs (1988) and Hannibal (1999). Some critics have accused him of just dashing off a novelization of his screenplay, implying that the novel is just a bunch of action scenes without the intricate plotting and extensive research of the earlier books.
Part of the problem is with the Hannibal we are presented, as a young man struggling to find a purpose and reason for living after experiencing unspeakable evil. The impeccable manners, appreciation for beauty and hatred of the vulgar are present, but the dark wit and immense intellect are just emerging, like a butterfly from a cocoon. In Hannibal, Harris introduced the concept of the "memory palace" of Dr. Lecter, where he stores and visits mental images from his past. They are like museum exhibits, carefully displayed and tastefully lit, accompanied by classical music if he wishes. It is a concept Harris discovered in his research and the author employs it effectively to show how monsters are rarely born. Early in Silence of the Lambs, Lecter tells Starling "Nothing happened to me, Officer Starling. I happened. You can't reduce me to a set of influences." But in these two most recent books, Harris has done exactly that.
What is staggering about Harris achievement with the four books in the Lecter saga, is that he has taken a secondary character he created in Red Dragon, and has brought him increasingly into the spotlight until he made readers root for his triumph and escape in Hannibal. Reportedly Sir Anthony Hopkins has lamented what he sees as Harris' decision to make a hero out of such a fascinating villain. Still, part of the brilliance of Harris' development of the story is how consistent he has stayed to the details of Lecter's life.
Just one example of this consistency was discovered upon rereading Silence of the Lambs. In Hannibal Rising Lady Murasaki teaches the young Hannibal the Japanese art of origami as a sort of therapy. In the earlier book, written almost twenty years earlier, Harris has Lecter amuse himself while being grilled by the FBI by silently folding an origami chicken. A little touch, but such attention to detail is impressive.
Just as it nature takes thousands of years to turn coal into diamonds, Tennessee native Harris takes his time plotting and writing novels. He has produced just six novels in thirty years. As an AP crime reporter based in New York City, Harris and some friends came up with the plot of a novel about Palestinian terrorists attacking the Super Bowl. Harris quit his day job to write Black Sunday (1975) which was made into a movie starring Bruce Dern and Robert Shaw.
Six years later he published Red Dragon. which introduced the world to Dr. Lecter, who is consulted by retired FBI profiler Will Graham who is on the trail of The Tooth Fairy, a serial killer who is murdering families without apparent motive. Another seven years passed until Silence of the Lambs, where trainee Clarice Starling seeks Lecter's help in tracking down another serial killer, Buffalo Bill. At the book's end Lecter has escaped and is about to go underground.
For a while it appeared we had heard the last of the charismatic cannibal, then in 1999 Harris brought his most famous creation back for a curtain call with Hannibal. Dr. Lecter is living as a man of style and taste in Italy as an art consultant, until he is flushed from hiding by a former patient he had drugged and induced to mutilate himself. Starling fights to bring Lecter back into custody and they end up as the most unlikely set of lovers since Whoppi Goldberg and Ted Danson. The ending upset so many readers that reportedly Jody Foster refused to appear in the sequel and the producers of the movie changed the ending completely.
With Hannibal Rising, Harris has taken the story of Hannibal Lecter almost completely full circle. While not as intricately structured as the police procedural narratives that preceded it, it portrays a brilliant but damaged child almost redeemed by the love of family but unable to bury the memories that haunt his dreams. When Lady Murasaki visits him near the novels end, he tells her he loves her, only to have her reply "What is left in you to love." They both know the answer: nothing.
Fans of the earlier books will find many of the elements of the earlier novels, interests that Lecter and Harris likely share: European travel, a love of fine food and art, an appreciation of manners and hatred of crudeness and vulgarity.
In the end, Harris writes, "Hannibal had entered his heart's long winter. He slept soundly, and was not visited in dreams as humans are." It is a benediction or sorts. One senses the respect Harris has for Hannibal. This may be our last visit with him. If so, it is satisfying on many levels.
Note: Fans of the good Doctor and Mr. Harris might enjoy visiting the Hannibal Lecter Studiolo online at www.hannibalstudiolo.com where they will find message boards for all the books and movies, role playing games and news about all things Lecter.
If you visit, you might want to bring a dish of fava beans and a nice Chianti.