It has taken Thomas Harris 11 years to publish the sequel to "The Silence of the Lambs," which suggests that while everyone was desperate to read it, he was not desperate to write it. The world, as well as the best-seller list, is bursting with horrors. Why add to the body count? Early in Harris's new novel, "Hannibal," the author finds a reason to keep writing: "Now that ceaseless exposure has calloused us to the lewd and the vulgar, it is instructive to see what still seems wicked to us." Fair enough, but "Hannibal" is neither an instructive book, nor a particularly frightening one. The scenes of cannibalism and torture are so overwrought--so gruesomely medieval --that they seem almost comic. This is your brain. This is your brain on drugs. This is your brain in a nice white-wine sauce.
It's been seven years since FBI Special Agent Clarice Starling slew the serial killer "Buffalo Bill" and bonded with the man in the mask, Dr. Hannibal Lecter. Starling's intelligence--and her admittedly hard edges--have threatened too many men in suits, and her career has flatlined. Lecter, meanwhile, has fled to Florence and whipped up a tony new identity: "He has found a peace here that he would preserve--he has killed hardly anybody." Unfortunately for our evil genius, a meatpacking heir named Mason Verger wants him even more than the FBI does. Once upon a time, Lecter gave Verger some hallucinogens, then encouraged him to peel off his face with a piece of broken glass and feed it to the dogs. These days, Verger is a faceless, repulsive pervert living on a respirator. He sits in the dark, buying off government types and pining for the day when his cronies can capture Lecter and feed him alive to some pigs. "Mason would have smiled," Harris writes, "if he had lips."
The Verger character is a disaster, a failed effort to dream up somebody who'd make even Lecter look well adjusted. Hannibal and Clarice, however, are a joy to see again. Sure, they're adversaries, but they behave more like soul mates, protecting each other from Verger and acting out a bizarre, touching sort of courtship. (In "Silence," Hannibal the Cannibal insisted he was simply born evil. Fans may be disappointed to learn that he's now been given a childhood trauma to explain his conversion into a galloping gourmet.) "Hannibal" can be a very entertaining novel, but ultimately even our affection for the main characters works against the thrill factor. Surely Hannibal won't harm Clarice. Surely he won't allow himself to be captured by Verger, a manifestly lesser psycho. Harris loves his plot twists, so anything's possible. For all the exotic dishes served up here, though, you finish "Hannibal" with an empty stomach.