Over the past 11 years as a reviewer, I have used the words "almost as good as Thomas Harris" to compliment terrific suspense writers - especially Ridley Pearson, Dennis Lehane, John Sandford, John Katzenbach, T. Jefferson Parker and Jeffrey Deaver - whose heroes specialize in the hunt for psychopathic killers.
Of course, since Harris writes a book only every 10 years or so, there was always the caveat that I would rather read a half dozen books from any of those fine authors than one from Harris.
But after reading "Hannibal," I would say that in order for Harris to even deserve mention in the same league as Pearson and Lehane, he had better write a good book - and soon.
"Hannibal" is the breathlessly awaited sequel to "Red Dragon" and "The Silence of the Lambs," as good a one-two punch as any writer has ever delivered in the serial killer fiction genre.
"Silence," of course, was made into the superb Oscar-winning film starring Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins. This made Harris' unexpected delivery of a sequel to his publisher Delacorte big news and led to an unprecedented publishing date of two months after delivery.
But the bigger news is that "Hannibal" is a huge letdown. It's not merely flat or below the gigantic expectations.
No, "Hannibal" is simply awful. It's a horribly written, ludicrous mess that, at times, displays amateurish incompetence. Harris constantly changes from past to present tense without warning and sometimes within the same sentence. He inserts his narrator into the action in ways that you almost expect the old-fashioned "dear reader" salutation.
The story begins seven years after the escape of Hannibal Lecter, the genius, cannibalistic serial killer featured in "The Silence of the Lambs."
Clarice Starling, the brilliant young FBI agent who sparred with Lecter, has been given a thankless series of low-level jobs by her sexist and jealous superiors.
Mason Verger, a rich meat mogul who was one of Lecter's victims, has put a bounty on the killer's head. Lecter once treated Verger in his psychiatric practice and had made Verger cut his own face off and feed it to some dogs. Verger has a plan to feed Lecter to man-eating pigs.
Meanwhile, a corrupt cop in Florence, Italy, spots Lecter, and after a long, boring 200-page game of cat and mouse, he pays for daring to challenge the evil genius.
Back in the States, Verger plots with Paul Krendler, Starling's superior, to frame her for conspiring with Lecter and leave her vulnerable as bait to attract the killer. But since we already know Hannibal won't harm Clarice, we are left with seeing which of the sick sadists is going to win the various confrontations that ensue.
"Hannibal" starts out all right as an action- packed cop story, but it bogs down as a tiresome Florentine travelog mixed with pseudo-intellectual pretense.
Some exciting bits occur as the maneuvering gets going back in the United States, but the Grand Guignol ending is so absurdly over the top and gruesome that it's tempting to start yelling at the book.
Worst of all, "Hannibal" is a complete betrayal of everything Harris' fans have invested in his characters.
Clarice has become a neurotic collection of Freudian trauma, Jack Crawford (the hero of "Red Dragon" and the agent who captured Lecter) is a doddering, ineffectual bureaucrat, and, worst of all, Lecter is now a victim, if not the protagonist of the story.
There also is simply no excuse for the final twist, which will leave most fans just spitting mad.
Some might argue that readers don't have the right to have expectations for these characters. Harris has the right to his vision, and readers have to judge it on its own terms.
Fine. But anyone who has no knowledge of the previous two novels would never see the fuss about " Hannibal ." Harris lazily depends on the fascination already built up for Clarice and Lecter to carry him through; this book can't stand on its own.
Worse, while the other books have chilling portraits of sadistic behavior, "Hannibal" is an exercise in sadism. Readers are invited to revel in the pain of others without moral context or even the cheap thrills of hoping the innocent can escape. The deaths in "Hannibal" are of nasty people, delivered with relish by a charming sadist with whom we are encouraged to sympathize.
Harris begins one of his chapters with this question: "Now that ceaseless exposure has calloused us to the lewd and the vulgar, it is instructive to see what still seems wicked to us. What still slaps the clammy flab of our submissive consciousness hard enough to get our attention?"
Well, how about this book, for starters?
"Hannibal" is a huge practical joke played on the legions of readers who couldn't wait to get their hands on it. Delacorte should now say, "Just kidding," refund every dime and announce that Harris had been kidnaped and this manuscript had been submitted by his captors. It would make as much sense as anything in this book.