The trouble with Hannibal Lecter—as a literary character—is that he has no equals. He’s always the smartest person in the room. He has no Achilles heel, no vulnerability to green Kryptonite. He errs from time to time, but so far, in his annals as chronicled by Thomas Harris, there is no prison that can hold him for long, no law officer who can outthink him. And that, after four novels in which he appears, is a real problem, because if Hannibal never meets his match, there’s no tension. If this goes on much longer, the world’s most famous fictional serial killer will simply bore us to death.
So far this is only a risk, not a fact. But when I heard that he was writing a fourth novel about Lecter—a prequel to the other stories—my heart sank. This, I thought, is one time too many. Oh me of little faith. In “Hannibal Rising,” which went on sale this week, Lecter appears as a young boy and as an adolescent, and while it is not Harris’s best book—that would still be “Red Dragon”—it comes in second, a distant second, but second all the same. (I say this as someone who was never a huge fan of “Silence of the Lambs” and thought “Hannibal” was just downright silly at times. “Red Dragon,” on the other hand, is one of the great popular novels written in the last 50 years.)
In “Hannibal Rising,” Harris takes a big gamble: he tackles the question of how to explain his creation head on. In the hands of a lesser writer, this could have been a disaster. It would have explained away the mystery. But Harris, like Alfred Hitchcock, is smart enough to know that there is no explaining a monster. The psychiatrist at the end of “Psycho” babbles on about Norman Bates, but he doesn’t really explain anything, and therefore he doesn’t diminish Norman, who’s just as scary after the explanation as he was before. In “Hannibal Rising,” several explanations for Hannibal’s murderous ways are set forth and knocked down in turn, including a scene where a police detective says, “What is he now? There’s not a word for it yet. For lack of a better word, we’ll call him a monster.” Which is of course, no answer at all.
“Hannibal Rising” begins about the time of Hitler’s invasion of Eastern Europe and runs through the middle '50s. The child of Lithuanian nobility, Hannibal and his sister are quickly orphaned in the first few pages and then caught at the mercy of the Nazis, the Russians and murderous thugs who use the chaos of war to loot and kill. The last two thirds of the book are a revenge tale. If the only way to make a serial killer sympathetic is to make his victims even more heinous, Harris couldn’t have done better than the heartless criminals who murder little Hannibal’s sister and loot his family estate. What could be worse than quisling SS wanna-bes with a taste for human flesh? After the war, Hannibal becomes the ward of his uncle and aunt, a Japanese woman named Lady Murasaki (why Thomas gave her the name of the world’s first novelist I never figured out—maybe he was just tipping his hat). The uncle dies, Hannibal and the aunt wind up in Paris, Hannibal goes to medical school, and then he begins tracking down his sister’s killers one by one.
Along the way, Harris throws out any number of possible explanations for Hannibal’s character, but he is always careful not to weight his multiple choices. Yes, there are good reasons why Hannibal turned out the way he did. What young Hannibal endures during the war is enough to psychologically maim any child, but Harris is never reductive. He always holds out the possibility that Nature, not Nurture, bred this killer. The boy’s first murder, for example, is a revenge killing where the victim arguably deserves his fate, but where the murderer, though still a boy, plainly loves his work.
What sets any Harris novel apart from most of its competition on the best-seller list is the writing, and by that I don’t mean fancy writing. Harris is the best kind of stylist: one who does not call attention to himself. When he does go out on a literary limb, it’s almost always strong enough to support his prose, as when he compares Notre Dame at night to a “great spider with its flying-buttress legs and the many eyes of its round windows.” Or, when Hannibal, at 18, returns to the ruins of his ancestral home, and Harris observes that “it is not healing to see your childhood home, but it helps you measure whether you are broken, and how and why, assuming you want to know.” Best of all, Harris is funny, in a wry, dark way. Describing the guests at a party thrown by one of the murderers Hannibal is tracking, Harris notes the presence of a corrupt American military official, his equally corrupt Soviet counterpart and a “bishop down from Versailles [who] was accompanied by the acolyte who did his nails.”
Harris proved me wrong with this novel. He did have more to say about his creation. But while I can understand how he could be become so enthralled with his creation that he devoted the better part of four novels to his exploits, I sincerely hope he’s done with Hannibal. Jailed or free, young or old, the not-so-good doctor has worn out his welcome. Yes, I read “Hannibal Rising” in one day, and I was entertained throughout. But when I put it down, I wasn’t longing for more. What I wanted instead was to see what other kinds of stories this gifted storyteller has to tell.