Thomas Harris’ Hannibal Lecter series has become a mainstay of the psychological thriller genre, inspiring successful film and television shows along the way. Elliot Jordan revisits the novels that brought the infamous cannibal to life in our collective imagination and argues for Harris’ series as not only great literature but the ultimate modern fairytale.
A while ago, I spent a long, hot summer working in a second-hand bookshop run by a well-known charity. One of the duties that got in the way of the reading time of the volunteers was shelving, and it became immediately clear that not all works of fiction were equal. Aside from ‘Science Fiction and Fantasy’ (which were very easy to identify), novels were streamed into three shelving zones: ‘Thriller’, undifferentiated ‘Fiction A-Z’, and finally 'Literature’. (In other bookshops the names vary, with ‘crime’ replacing the first and ‘classics’ replacing the third, but these classifications remain essentially the same.) The implication was obvious: once a book achieved some alchemical mixture of age and popularity, it earned a place on the ‘literature’ shelf alongside battered old copies of Dickens and Austen. As for ‘thrillers’, many hours spent reading them revealed that they invariably had garish covers, with shadowy figures, bloodstains, mysterious symbology or some mixture thereof, seeming to lend themselves more to an airport stationer than a dignified bookshop. They had abnormally large text and a repertoire of stereotypical detective-type maverick characters. The storyline would either be about a plucky hero’s struggles against some dark government agency or—more often—against a serial killer, a creepy, freakish individual who would kill disposable extras in ways as garish as the covers of the books. The ending would inevitably be happy, with the plucky hero vindicated against the killer, his superiors, his love interest, or usually all three. Yet beyond content, there was always the faintly snobbish suggestion that if a book had to be good to be ‘literature’, then it had to be intellectually worthless to be downgraded to the zone of cheap ‘thrillers’, fit only for producing cheap thrills. Ten minutes reading such books usually proves such snobbery right, and we are reminded of Graham Greene’s famous division of his own works into ‘novels’ and ‘entertainments’. Yet good things can be found in unexpected places, and a particular series of books that are typically found in the ‘thriller’ section, when they are found at all, are on closer examination one of the great fairytales of our time, hinging on their creation of our great fairytale monster: Thomas Harris’ Red Dragon, The Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal. The monster? Hannibal Lecter, M. D.
At first glance, these appear to be textbook thrillers—FBI agents working to stop the depredations of cruel and unusual serial murderers. Many of the ‘film noir’-style hallmarks of thrillers are certainly present, and the narrative would seem to have enough moments of danger and suspense to ‘thrill’ the reader. Accordingly, the original 1988 edition of Red Dragon had the tacky preface on the inside cover: ‘Even if you think a book can’t really scare you...lock the door and leave the bright lights on when you read…’. Yet the fact that Harris was on to something very, very remarkable was made clear in 1991, when the middle book in the trilogy premiered as a film. Directed by Jonathan Demme, The Silence of the Lambs swept the Oscars, in no small part due to the immortal skill with which Anthony Hopkins brought to life the immaculately refined cannibalistic psychiatrist. Dr Lecter (not ‘Hannibal’) is the fulcrum of the trilogy; the inspired element and the uniqueness, and in many ways the plotline itself functions as a delivery system to let this most fascinating of villains work his unique magic. Yet it is here that the trilogy radically diverges from the established ‘thriller’ formula—Lecter isn’t the hero, but he isn’t the most obvious villain either, and indeed he at least appears to help speed justice along with his psychiatric profiling skills. This is the first step in elevating Harris’s trilogy—as well as Lecter’s character, who with his positions as an archival researcher in Florence and on the board of the Baltimore Philharmonic must make him one of the only fictional serial killers for whom killing isn’t their main ambition in life. Meanwhile, we find that Harris has stylistic skill well beyond that of the average thriller writer—unlike most, he avoids the howling errors of grammar, syntax and decency that give the modern genre such a bad name, and more importantly allows the prose to hold value in its own right, rather than simply as an inconvenient means for getting a cheaply pulse-raising plot across as quickly as possible. Especially with the middle book of the trilogy, it’s obvious to an alert reader that they are dealing with something far more eloquent and profound than a typical thriller. Just take this description of the novel’s working class protagonist, Clarice Starling:
Starling was an isolated member of a fierce tribe with no formal genealogy but the honours list and the penal register. Many generic Starlings had thumped on the bottom of narrow holes or slid off planks with a shot at their feet or were commended to glory in the cold when everyone wanted to go home. A few many have been recalled tearily by the officers on regimental mess nights, the way a man in drink remembers a good bird dog.
Many novelists try to affect a detached, sarcastic tone when describing their characters, but Harris actually does it very well. Freddy Lounds, the sordid, noir-inspired crime writer for the tabloid Tattler (a particularly amusing name for British readers) is described with streaks of Waugh or Pynchon, and with a viciousness that we can only assume reflects an utter hatred on Harris’ part for journalism:
He had buck teeth and his rat eyes had the sheen of spit on asphalt. He saw that the publishers would wear his legs out, use him until it was time for him to become a broken-down old drunk manning a dead-end desk, drifting inevitably towards cirrhosis or a mattress fire.
Across the series, the spiritual unfulfillment and grubby reality of late-twentieth century Beltway America—the world of Watergate—is portrayed with a constant dark sense of humour and an inventive eye for detail, with both the author and Lecter’s distaste for modern American life (one of many parallels between Harris and Vladimir Nabokov) something of a running joke.
Split city is a bleak place the wind blows through. Like the Sunday divorce flight from La Guardia to Juarez, it is a service industry to the mindless Brownian movement in our population.
Aside from the surprising quality of the writing, a good barometer is the attitude of the books to death. As Elvis Costello knew, there’s something distinctly chic and even sexy about fictional detective work (‘I don’t know how much more of this I can take/She’s filing her nails while they’re dragging the lake…’). Yet unlike most thrillers or their ‘film noir’ predecessors, Harris never trivialises death as a colourful accessory to a ‘penny dreadful’ storyline but treats it with the maturity one would expect from a serious novel. We are given heart wrenching descriptions of the psychological damage Graham, the protagonist of the first novel, has suffered from his FBI career, and of the tragic futility of more mundane, realistic demise as Crawford’s wife wastes away from cancer. As the Doctor himself says, in an updated yet essentially repeated version of that old theological conundrum, famously described by David Hume as the ‘problem of evil’:
“I collect church collapses, recreationally. Did you see the recent one in Sicily? Marvellous! The facade fell on sixty-five grandmothers at a special mass. Was that evil? If so, who did it? If he’s up there, he just loves it, Officer Starling. Typhoid and swans—it all comes from the same place.”
Religion, which along with class is one of the trilogy’s unexpected yet most salient themes, is thus expressed in a distinctly twentieth-century, post-War way: a refusal to square the idea of a benevolent God with the horrors of man, let alone the cosmic indifference of the universe. It can hardly escape our notice that Mason Verger, the hideously disfigured and utterly repulsive—indeed, probably excessively so—antagonist in the third novel, murmurs to Starling of the wonders of Christian forgiveness, even as he boasts of his predation on the innocent. The contrast could hardly be stronger with the insistently religious morality in other generation-defining works of horror: see Marlowe’s Faustus, with the titular character dragged to hell as his guardian angel laments his renouncement of God, or Stoker’s Dracula, in which the naive Englishman Jonathan Harker foolishly scorns offers of crucifixes from the local peasantry and finds himself defenceless against the vampiric Count. Yet above and beyond human evil, even the tragedy of the passage of time, which as Malvolio declares in Twelfth Night ‘doth ever make the better fool’, appears in one of Lecter’s moments alone:
He knew that Hawking once believed the universe would stop expanding and would shrink again, and entropy might reverse itself...for years Lecter had teased the problem, wanting very much for Hawking to be right the first time, for the expanding universe to stop, for entropy to mend itself…
It’s almost like an updated version of this passage from Funeral Music, Geoffrey Hill’s haunting sonnet sequence conjuring dark visions of the Wars of the Roses, on Averroes/Ibn-Rashd (a medieval Andalusian theologian) and the philosophy of the eternal soul:
...Averroes, old heathen,
If only you had been right, if Intellect
Itself were absolute law, sufficient grace,
Our lives could be a myth of captivity
Which we might enter…
Harris’ unusually mature, complex, even philosophical attitude towards death and darkness means that when moments of dark comedy appear, the break in the tragedy as well as the tension guarantees a giggle:
“They tried sodium amytal on him a few years ago, trying to find out where he buried a Princeton student. He gave them a recipe for dip.”
Or this line, which finds the Doctor reflecting on one of his victims, the unfortunate Baltimore flautist:
“Best thing for him, really. Therapy wasn’t going anywhere. I expect most psychiatrists have a patient or two they’d like to refer to me.”
Indeed, modern crime thrillers as a rule aren’t actually all that engaging, and they certainly aren’t funny (as anyone who has forced their way through the utterly dire ‘Joe Ledger’ series or the disappointingly written and Mills-and-Boon-titled Dexter novels will know) but it’s difficult not to be absorbed by many of Harris’ scenes, like this wonderful moment of chemistry as Starling rescues Lecter in the closing act of the story:
“With all due respect, Doctor, if you fuck with me I’ll shoot you dead, here and now. Do you understand that?”
“Do right and you’ll live through this”
“Spoken like a Protestant”.
Then there’s Lecter’s superbly ironic description of the puffed-up Dr Chiltern in Red Dragon:
You must have seen him when you came in. Gruesome, isn’t it? Tell me the truth, he fumbles at your head like a freshman pulling at a panty girdle.
Indeed, the appropriately chilling ‘Chiltern’ is a good example of how Harris has an almost Dickensian ability to play with names: most obviously we have ‘Starling’, with avian connotations of weakness and vulnerability, yet also shrewdness and subtlety (‘I talk in a daze, I walk in a maze/I cannot get out, said the starling’, writes Nabokov’s most famous protagonist). ‘Dolorhyde’ gives us ‘dolorous’ (latin dolor) and ‘formaldehyde’, along with ‘-hyde’’s resonance with Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 Jekyll and Hyde, also about transformative evil. Then we have Krendler, almost onomatopoeically impling ‘rake’, ‘rend’ or perhaps Grendel. ‘Hannibal’ gives us Hannibal Barca, the terror of the Roman Republic, and the obvious rhyme with ‘cannibal’, providing a ready-made nickname for Harris’s sleazy journalists to use. Most interestingly, ‘Lecter’ (which Harris smartly chooses over the more blatant ‘Lektor’) gives ‘leer’ and ‘spectre’, but also ‘lecture’/’lectern’/’proctor’ (Latin lector), hinting at how the doctor’s main role in the series is not as a killer, but as a teacher.
Of course, this is where the truly unique element of the story lies. At the beginning of the trilogy the story almost appears to already be over: he has been caught and safely incarcerated. Like Richard III, we thus begin in the afterglow of the apparent action, yet unlike Gloucester, Lecter is sealed off from the world. How then, is he such a terrifying figure, who is far more unsettling and memorable than the killers he helps catch? The answer is something that itself disqualifies this series from being a simple thriller: subtlety. As Lecter’s chess-like conversations with his FBI visitors unfold, we are unsettled not by visible blood or violence but by the far scarier idea that he can enter and manipulate their minds, even as he strews their futures with plots and trials of his own devising. “You don’t want Lecter in your head”, Crawford warns Starling before her visit (darkly foreshadowing the ghoulish dinner party at the trilogy’s conclusion), and the battle of wills that results makes the usual thriller material of catching ‘perps’ appear utterly dull by comparison. Indeed, what makes Lecter so terrifying is his medical credentials, with his continued use of ‘M. D.’ and the title of ‘Doctor’, contrasting the safety and security we would hope to associate with doctors with his gruesome practices—this is probably what makes Sweeney Todd, a murdering barber, such a memorable character in the popular imagination. On that note, Shelley’s Frankenstein came after the emergence of modern science and the discovery of electricity, terrifying the reader with the dark consequences of scientific experimentation gone wrong. Is it a coincidence that Lecter’s entry into the general consciousness as a demon psychiatrist followed the mid-twentieth century expansion of psychiatry to the American suburban public and the mass-market popularisation of psychoanalysis, laughably dismissed by the doctor in one of his conversations with Starling as a ‘dead religion’? Indeed, the trilogy is in many ways an extended satire on psychiatry, another similarity with Nabokov, who calls Freud the ‘Viennese medicine man’ yet makes teasing hints at the subconscious throughout his novels. But the lives of all of Harris’ major characters—including Lecter—would seem to prove the basic psychoanalytical foundation that early life conditions one’s later character and the flaws of adulthood. I think Lecter, in dismissing it, was protesting too much—and the lack of any scenes of the Doctor with a (live and uncooked) patient means we may only speculate about how he performs his profession.
One of the trilogy’s other themes is therefore perhaps that of ‘contrast’. At first glance, it seems to be everywhere. Graham’s heroic desire to protect families contrasts with the depredations of the ‘Tooth Fairy’. The grubby, seamy brutality of ‘Buffalo Bill’ contrasts with Lecter’s immaculate appearance and mannerisms, as well as the depth of his psychiatric ability. The youthful, idealistic energy of Starling contrasts with the horror into which she descends to preserve life—quite literally, with her headlong plunges into Bill’s lair, Verger’s pig farm, drug-ravaged D.C. gangland (another nod to contemporary sociopolitics, this time the corruption and hypocrisy at the heart of the war on drugs) and of course the Baltimore asylum. As metaphorised by her childhood trauma of trying to save screaming lambs from the slaughter, brought out in one of her interviews with Lecter, she exists as a desperate and determined hero. Yet on closer examination, the trilogy is actually far less Manichean than any thriller, with clearly identifiable ‘good’ and ‘bad guys’. Lecter is at once a supremely cultured intellectual, with even his imprisoned life spent publishing academic papers and sketching Florentine skylines, and a killer whose predilection is the most savage, animalistic act imaginable, as famously discussed in Michael de Montaigne’s 16th century essay ‘des Cannibales’, and as provided an anagrammatic name for Shakespeare’s ‘Caliban’. (When writing this essay I was asked by a friend if I thought the novels would work as well as they do if Lecter were ‘just’ a serial killer. I’m not sure they would). The contrast between this and the Doctor’s refined sensibilities is of course famously summarised in the superb line about liver and Chianti—though in the book, he prefers the grander Amarone. This blend of mirth, high culture, whimsical brutality and a labyrinthine battle of wits is a potent and enthralling mix indeed, which only needed Hopkins’ expression—or, for that matter, Brian Cox’s—to become iconic. Like Shakespeare’s Gloucester, Lecter can ‘smile, and murder whiles I smile’—though a more apt quote would be (amusingly) from Ignatius Loyola in Middleton’s A Game at Chess, who like Lecter, can ‘with my refin’d nostrils taste the footsteps’ of the souls around him. We have the masterfully choreographed escape scene in the Tennessee jailhouse, juxtaposing Lecter’s sadistic, animalistic mutilation of his guards with his polite mannerisms before (‘ready when you are, Sergeant Pembury…’) and after, his bloodstained hands gently moving to the strains of Goldberg’s Bach Variations. More levels of apparent contradiction are present: his jailer, a supposed ‘good guy’, is the sexist, self-serving and incompetent Chiltern, while the FBI are often misogynist creeps bathing in nepotism and mediocrity. In the third novel the true villain is Verger, himself one of the doctor’s victims, while Starling battles not a serial killer but the corrupt, self-serving Bureau hierarchy and the haughty, predatory Department of Justice attorney Paul Krendler, who with his Ivy League sweater and slick Capitol Hill mannerisms embodies the patrician disdain of the American upper classes in a way that faintly reminds us of Gatsby’s Tom Buchanan or Catch-22’s Captain Aardvark. (‘I’m going to Congress’, he groggily boasts to Starling as he propositions her across Lecter’s dinner table.) Indeed, Hans Zimmer saw his wonderful and very underrated score to the film, all dark, rumbling cellos and strains of opera, as written as much about ‘corruption in the American police force’ as ‘a Freudian archetypal beauty and the beast fairy tale’. This links heavily with the theme of class: Starling’s ‘will to power’ is her desire to escape her working-class roots and achieve something more in D.C. This is vocalised by Lecter in one of the most powerful speeches of the trilogy, which loses nothing in the film adaptation but is still worth quoting from the book:
“Good nutrition has given you some length of bone, but you’re not more than one generation out of the mines, Officer Starling. Is it the West Virginia Starlings or the Okie Starlings, Officer? It was a toss-up between college and the opportunities in the Women’s Army Corps, wasn’t it?”
I suspect it is this bleak aspect of Starling’s character, not merely the sweepingly melancholy tone of the respective texts, that provides a degree of shared DNA between Harris’ novels and Melville’s Moby Dick. Like Captain Ahab, Starling pursues inhuman beasts in search of a single, unearthly and seemingly self-destructive goal—and the wry observations of Ishamel are often matched by Harris’ narration:
If even the uncertain gentility of the South refer to your people as peckerwoods—in what tradition do you find an example? That we whaled the piss out of them that first time at Bull Run? That great grand-daddy did right at Vicksburg, that a corner of Shiloh is forever Yazoo City?
Again, Lecter puts his finger on it, with a fascinating tone that seems to mix his earlier condescension with a gentle sort of compassion:
“Why was your father not a deputy sheriff, in tight with the courthouse crowd? Why did your mother clean motels to keep you? Was a big federal career your hope or theirs? Have your supervisors demonstrated any values, Clarice?”
Yet the reality that Starling reaches the corridors of American federal power to find them stricken by corruption and closed to people like her serves only to make her—and us—more drawn to Lecter, who for all his monstrosities is by far the warmest, most courteous character of the series, albeit perhaps excluding Starling herself. The best indication that this series is far superior to traditional detective ‘thrillers’ is that the world it creates is, as Demme’s brooding cinematography in Silence of the Lambs and Zimmer’s score to the sequel show, not a traditional detective tale at all, but a story for our own, less certain times, a swirling mass of human struggles against adversity and the darkness of the mind.
This is not about sympathy. Sympathy does not enter here. And mercy is left bleeding in the dust
As the sardonic Porfiry says in Crime and Punishment, ‘this is a murky, fantastic case, a contemporary one, an incident that belongs to our own age...in which the heart of man has grown dark and muddied’—and the actual plot is merely a part of Harris’ panoramic American vista. But through it all remains Starling as the hero of the story, striving through the horror around her and the corruption above her to save life. Together, the novels are thus reminiscent as much of Dante’s descent into the underworld as Grimm’s fairy tales. As her adversary, teacher, terror and guardian angel stands Lecter, less a ‘movie villain’, still less a human in any recognisable fashion, and more a fairytale monster:
“Is it true what they’re saying, that he’s some kind of vampire?”
“They don’t have a name for what he is”
Yet Harris makes his setting distinctly modern, despite all of the rich symbology of Blake and Dante (‘I forget your generation doesn’t read’, Lecter sneers to Starling in response to her ignorance of Marcus Aurelius, at once a social comment and a generational one). Like Dracula (also a vampiric Eastern European aristocrat) Lecter is a vision of medieval darkness loosed on the modern, western world of the novel: he may stalk patrician Baltimore and nocturnal Florence, but the FBI’s investigations are conducted by fax machine and helicopter, and Starling’s tracking down of Lecter to Italy in the third book must make the Doctor the first great villain to have been located with the help of the internet. Indeed, in contrast to the woods, castles and caves that play host to more traditional gothic monsters (those of Lovecraft or Poe, for example), Lecter and Starling’s saga is written onto a backdrop of dark modernity, with the films’ tremendous cinematography capturing the oppressive stone and brutalist concrete of the FBI’s headquarters with as much aplomb as the decaying towns haunted by Dolorhyde and Gumb, or the Appalachian trauma in Starling’s own subconscious. Another icon of the modern world, air travel, appears in an almost satirical scene of the Doctor’s distaste for economy class, though Harris turns this into a masterfully atmospheric description of Lecter’s return to America, setting the closing act of the trilogy in motion:
We can see the airplane through the vapour of our breath, a brilliant point of light in the clear night sky. See it cross the Pole star, well past the point of no return, committed now to a great arc down to tomorrow in the New World.
Of course, what really matters in any fairytale is how it ends, and here I think we can really get to the heart of what makes these novels so good. In this regard, the key theme is transformation. This is established early on: the behavioural analysts of the FBI attempt to understand what transforms a human into a manhunter and unravel Dolorhyde’s fantasies of transformation into the demonic Red Dragon as the end-point of his childhood trauma. In Silence, the transformation of ‘Buffalo Bill’ is mirrored in his fascination with moths emerging from their chrysalis. That being said, I believe Harris should never have elaborated on Lecter’s early life—he appears more unearthly and far more unsettling if he simply is, without an explanation of how he came to be—that ultimately will always be more mundane than no explanation at all. Yet to return to the point, the great transformation of the series is that undergone by Starling herself. She comes to Lecter as a student, both literally and metaphorically, and his role is not that of an antagonist, but of a teacher. In this regard, the old commonplace that film adaptations are worse than the original book is actually true in reverse, because—and if you haven’t seen it, please stop reading here—the film adaptation of Hannibal upholds Starling’s heroism, having her attempt to arrest Lecter instead of eloping with him, as she does in the somewhat flippant book ending. Perhaps that ending has merit—Lecter’s hypnosis of Starling would seem to be the logical conclusion of Harris’ satirisation of psychiatry and poses interesting questions about the borders between love and revenge, right and wrong, pharmacological drugs and biological hormones which are worth thinking about, but I maintain that the more traditionally ‘good’ resolution of Starling’s story is superior. The reason why the trilogy’s film ending works so much better as a fairytale is because as Chesterton famously said, fairytales may bring monsters to life, but they also bring to life the heroes that fight them. Fittingly, in the film’s conclusion, Starling’s journey into heroism is vocalised by the monster with whom she has become inexorably tied:
“Would they have you back, do you think? The FBI? Those people you despise almost as much as they despise you? Would they give you a medal, Clarice, do you think? Would you have it professionally framed and hang it on your wall to look at and remind you of your courage and incorruptibility? All you would need for that, Clarice, is a mirror.”
It is in this moment that we realise—just in case we haven’t already—that their story is one of terror, but also one of a strangely moving beauty, and Lecter’s subsequent escape into Ridley Scott’s firework-strewn night preserves the best aspects of a fairytale: the mystery, and the magic. He has lived to kill another day, but the monster’s decision, unable to hurt Starling, to cut off his own hand rather than hers to get free of her handcuffs implies that he may have transformed her during their time together, but maybe, just maybe, she transformed him too.
Viewed in succession, as they must be, these aren’t simply ‘thrillers’. They’re a fairytale for the modern age, and it’s therefore fitting that their heart is inhabited by a very modern monster indeed. Their story conjures thrills, introspection, sorrow and joy in surprising measures, from Graham’s first, fateful call on Lecter’s opulent Baltimore study, to the gloriously melancholic sunset conclusion of the series, as time ticks inexorably on to the final dinner party and the tantalising end to this deeply amusing parable. It retains the power to leave us truly entranced, and against it, most so-called ‘thrillers’ appear juvenile and insipid. Chianti will never sound the same again. ▲
Elliot Jordan read history at St Andrews and is a postgraduate sixteenth-century history student at Oxford. He studies English Literature as a hobby, especially poetry, and is a member of the Siegfried Sassoon Fellowship.