A minor subplot in Carl Hiaasen’s novel Lucky You involves protagonist Tom Krome trying to divorce his wife. But Mary Andrea Finley Krome won’t agree to the divorce – not because she’s madly in love with Tom (she’s as sick of him as he is of her) but because no woman in her family has ever got divorced, and Mary is damned if she’ll break the chain. Tom’s hapless attorney finds it almost impossible to serve papers because Mary Andrea, an accomplished actress, travels all over the continental US starring in various stage productions under different names. One of the shows is a musical version of The Silence of the Lambs, featuring the chorus line:
Oh, Hannibal the Cannibal
How deliciously malicious you are!
Oh, Hannibal the Cannibal. How he’s woven himself into pop culture. He’s been played by at least three different actors in a range of media, parodied in countless animations and sitcoms. Writers and readers are preoccupied with serial killers: there’s probably more fictional serials that ones that have actually existed, but in his wit and insights Lecter is king of a bloated subgenre. (Only Dick Dart, villain of Peter Straub’s The Hellfire Club, comes close.) We’ll never forget what happened to the luckless census taker who tried to ‘quantify’ Dr Lecter, and when the last Home Secretary imposed a ban on books for prisoners, it was a line of Lecter’s that immediately came to me: ‘Any rational society would kill me, or give me my books.’
In The Strange World of Thomas Harris, David Sexton’s analysis of the Lecter mythos, he quotes criminologist Elliott Leyton, who argues that the Hannibal books are great fiction but bad criminology. As fictional serial killer, Lecter is erudite, urbane, empathetic, sociable, multilingual, curious and self aware. Real serial murderers, Leyton says, tend to be ‘without intellectual or physical attainments, they are often uneducated and virtually illiterate… in sum, they are dull, unimaginative, socially defective, vengeful, self-absorbed and self-pitying human beings.’ But Sexton argues that the Lecter novels were never meant to be realistic: ‘The Hannibal Lecter stories have about the same connection to social reality as, say, the stories of Bluebeard or Dracula.’ This isn’t detective fiction – it’s the gothic high style.
Readers and critics alike loved the first two Lecter novels, in which the psychiatrist – incarcerated for a string of elaborate slayings – assists the FBI in solving other crimes, before escaping at the end of Silence of the Lambs. Hannibal, featuring the adventures of a fugitive Lecter, was seen as a betrayal of the mythos – bad fiction and bad criminology. None was more harsh than Martin Amis, and it is worth getting his War Against Cliché anthology for his marvellous hatchet job alone. Amis noted that the Hannibal of Hannibal is loaded with a plethora of pretentions: ‘curator of the Capponi’, opera at the Teatro Piccolomini, playing an ‘ornate clavier’ and eighteenth-century Flemish harpsichords, related to Balthus, the Viscontis and Machiavelli, ‘Anatole figs still weeping from their severed stems’ – Harris has made him ‘that awesome presence, a European aristocrat.’
I don’t think it’s unfair to see Harris as one of those Americans who goes gushing crazy over Old Europe. Wouldn’t a Baylor alumnus from dustbowl Mississippi love to know someone like Hannibal? The Europe he depicts in Hannibal is bathed in sepulchral grandness, a dream of great cathedrals, shimmering women and cold, fine wine. (The TV show replicates this, having FBI agents pursue Lecter on Orient-Express style steam trains and through the cobblestones and frescoes of medieval Florence.) European luxury is contrasted with the mediocre squalor of the new world: when Lecter returns to America he has to smuggle himself on a coach trip and he’s appalled by his fellow passengers, their weight and smells and children and shitty processed food. ‘Elemental Ugliness,’ Harris writes, ‘is found in the faces of the crowd.’ Hannibal antagonist Mason Verger is a meatpacking heir out for revenge after Lecter had him paralysed and induced him to cut off his own face in a PCP trance. Mason is a predator, but with none of Hannibal’s style. This is where the American dream ends, Harris is saying – faceless paralysed rich boys, drinking Martinis spiked with children’s tears.
Amis perceived in the book an authorial disdain for the masses: Harris ‘severs himself from the commonality, and it is precisely this severance that has demolished his talent.’ Hannibal is a predator who predates the messy compromise of democracy – he comes from a time where what matters is power and sensation. Class has always impacted on the crime genre. (Overrated true crime writer Anne Rule, in The Stranger Besides Me, flutters and trills over the handsome Ted Bundy and struggles to believe that such a nice young Republican boy could have committed all these murders. One pities the homicide detectives she followed around.) It has also partially formed the horror genre. The vampire wears evening dress in his castle and exercises droit de signeur on the peasant villages below. Harris gives Lecter all kinds of supernatural resonance – he says as authorial comment that ‘It is an axiom of behavioural science that vampires are territorial, while cannibals range widely across the country.’ Elsewhere he’s compared to Job’s devil – going to and fro in the world, and probably having a good time.
What matters is predation and power. Even the language of religion is harnessed into power relationships: Lecter reflects that ‘his own modest predations paled beside those of God, who is in irony matchless, and in wanton malice beyond measure.’ What matters is power and sensation. As Sexton says, taste isn’t kind. The ending of Hannibal, where Clarice Starling goes from being Lecter’s pursuer to his rescuer and lover, seems improbable (Amis: ‘It’s hard to think what woman would be capable of diverting Hannibal for more than five seconds. Mata Hari? Baroness Orczy? Catherine the Great?’) but makes perfect sense in this context. Starling has worked her way up from a modest background but is still held back by a patrician FBI personified by the moronic Paul Krendler. Sexton highlights her line ‘Damn a bunch of self improvement. I want a good dinner’ as the moment she decides to give up banging her head against the wall and succumb to the life of easy wealth offered by Lecter. A triumph of evil all the more striking because Lecter appeared to have seduced his creator as well as the heroine.
The disappointment of the Lecter novels is that Harris never gave Hannibal an effective opposition. I would love to have seen someone who could challenge the doctor intellectually and stand up for the commonality and democratic secularism. It’s true that the devil has a certain style but there is a kick and a pleasure in empathy, compassion, generosity too. Contra Sexton, these days taste is often kind.