It’s been a long time since I’ve reviewed a book and now’s as good a time as any. I haven’t been slacking though. I’ve actually been reading a lot. Well, not reading per se. More like, listening. Or both. Look, I have a lot of metaphorical (book) irons in the fire at any given time, ok? I’m reading, I’m listening on my commute, I’m reading a different book, I’m listening to a different audiobook with my kid – it’s a lot to keep straight. Bottom line is: I read/listened to Hannibal by Thomas Harris. I’ve liked the Hannibal Lecter books that I’ve read so far and despite reading rather middling to negative reviews of this 1999 entry into the saga, I figured I might as well check it out. And now I’ll let you know how I felt about it! Lucky you.
Hannibal picks up a few years after FBI agent Clarice Starling cracked the Buffalo Bill serial killer case detailed in The Silence of the Lambs. She has since been hampered by her success through the actions of jealous/petty/misogynistic/shady/lecherous Justice Department head, Paul Krendler, and her inability/refusal to play politics to advance her career. She catches some heat from the media for her actions during a drug ring bust that turned into a shitshow. She shot a female crime lord who was holding a baby in one hand and a gun in the other. She did so in self-defense, but the media had a field day with it. Hannibal Lecter, on the loose and living under an assumed name/life in Italy, has been keeping an eye on Starling and reaches out to her to remind her that she is a warrior, no matter what the media or the FBI says. The fresh scent of Lecter sets a manhunt into motion that involves the FBI, the Justice Department, morally-flexible police, and privately hired kidnappers. The severely-mutilated, black-souled (and very rich) Mason Verger pulls the strings of this manhunt from behind the scenes, with Paul Krendler as his in-pocket inside man. Through his actions, Starling is relieved of duty after she’s framed for aiding a fugitive. As a disgraced private citizen, Starling becomes Verger’s unwitting lure in his quest to capture/torture/kill Lecter to get revenge for Lecter’s orchestrating the disfigurement that has left Verger bedridden and reliant on medical means to stay alive. Will Verger get his revenge? Will Starling be caught in the crossfire? Will Hannibal prevail? Who knows?! (well, i do. because i read it)
I quite liked the sympathy built for the Hannibal Lecter character that made Hannibal Rising (read previously) such an emotionally hard-hitting story. That sympathy lingers in Hannibal, but only because I know that prequel story. Lecter is written as a sympathetic fugitive in this book, but first time readers (or those familiar only with the The Silence of the Lambs film) may find this a bit confusing. Lecter is objectively a monster. He is a remorseless murderer and cannibal. Standing on its own, Hannibal presents Lecter as a character to root for simply because criminals and unscrupulous men pursue him. But that device does not hold up to careful scrutiny. That’s not so say that Hannibal isn’t good. In fact, having read Hannibal Rising and knowing more about Lecter’s past than what is hinted at through flashbacks in this book are what made this story and Lecter’s plight so compelling for me. It it certainly was compelling… to a point. (i’ll come back to that in a moment) Harris has written a great continuation of his character-centered Lecter universe in his familiar (if you’ve read previous novels) yet fresh way. His lush descriptions of food and beauty are balanced perfectly by his visceral descriptions of brutality and gore. His Clarice Starling character is strong and grounded. If you’ve read Red Dragon or The Silence of the Lambs (Hannibal Rising is its own thing for a few reasons) and liked them, then you’ll enjoy most of Hannibal. It’s when we get beyond that “most” that we run into trouble. There is a point in the book at which things take an unexpected turn. That’s fine, of course. We want unexpected turns in our stories. And that one moment, is a beautiful, emotional bit of character interaction. (you’ll know it when you read it) What follows, however, is a strange and frustrating epilogue (though i don’t think it officially/structurally qualifies as an epilogue). It reads like a hasty wrap-up for a particular character that Harris was tired of writing (or like misguided fan fic). It changes the character drastically, taking him/her (avoiding spoilers) down a path that the reader did not expect and probably (if you’re like me) doesn’t want to see. (sorry for the mystery. if you’re already a fan, this book is still worth reading despite the frustration/disappointment of the ending. so i don’t want to spoil it)
The Final Cut: For the most part, Hannibal is another great entry into the Hannibal Lecter-related series of stories. Harris’s descriptive and detailed prose is top-notch and his characters are compelling and well-developed. Where this book slips, however, is in its extended epilogue-like final chapters, where things take a disappointingly strange turn.