Thursday, April 4, 2013

Book Review: Hannibal by Thomas Harris

Hannibal by Thomas Harris - Book Cover
By Thomas Harris

The last time we saw Clarice Starling, she was a naïve but promising rising star in the FBI. But now, seven years later, she is stalled in her career path as controversy and Bureau politics have seen her passed over for promotion and proper assignment time and time again.

The last time we saw Hannibal Lecter, he had escaped from imprisonment and was on the lam. On that front, not much has changed except that he traded the landscape of America for that of historic Italy.

The FBI continues their pursuit of Lecter, but they are not the only one. The partially-paralyzed, fully-disfigured Mason Verger--one of Lecter's early victims, and the only one to survive his attack--is funding a massive, global manhunt for the gentleman cannibal, seeking not justice but revenge.

Verger's bounty is large enough that there are plenty of people willing to give into the temptation of breaking the law to collect it, including disgraced Italian detective Rinaldo Pazzi. It briefly seems as if Pazzi (a character torn straight from the script of some forgotten giallo) will be the primary protagonist this time around, just as the focus shifted from Will Graham to Clarice Starling in the last novel, but this is not the case. He is just another member of a large cast whose influence is instrumental in landing Lecter in Verger's hands.

Starling, treated like a sacrificial lamb by the Feds, still has an innate sense of justice and honor, and she's not going to let a simple thing like being taken off the case prevent her from tracking Lecter down.

I have conflicted feelings about this novel when viewed in relation to its two predecessors. Taken on its own, it is a glorious and entertaining exercise in excess--an excess of the tasteful (much time is spent discussing fine music, art, and cuisine) and the distasteful (man-eating pigs, disembowelings, a twisted dinner scene that crosses Leatherface with...some fancy French restaurant that I'm not even capable of referencing) alike. It seemed as if Harris was throwing everything that he could think of into the mix, not caring what sunk and what rose to the top, a not-so-delicate blending of oil and water. That's something I can get behind.

But when taken as a part of the series, that's when things get a bit murky. The characters here have seemingly little connection to the people they were before. Jack Crawford, once a fatherly hero to Starling, is now ineffectual and defeated. Starling herself seems like a shell of the person she once was, acting in ways that I can't imagine she actually would--especially in the finale, which is so outlandish that it was drastically altered for the film adaptation.

Lecter had always been a bit of an enigma, with only minor glimpses into his character. Here, though, he steps out from the sidelines and takes center stage. What backstory we do get is heinous and tragic, but understanding the monster doesn't serve to make him more frightening. This is the novel that turned Lecter into less of a villain and more of an anti-hero, which is something that doesn't bother me but is not everyone's cup of tea.

Hannibal is a story that didn't have to be written, that much is certain. It was probably more of a cash grab than an attempt at any sort of art, but you give the masses what they want and they come hungrily to the slaughter just like Mason Verger's piggies.

One more visit to the trough for Hannibal Rising, and then this franchise is finis.


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