Last week I briefly examined a genre-changing novel. Today I would like to do the same for a genre-changing character. A character so memorable, so well crafted that we are incapable of letting him slip into the annals of literary history. A character that didn’t simply help to define a genre, he became the genre. Twenty-five years ago this month The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris was published in the US. It was the second novel to feature Dr Hannibal Lecter, following on from Red Dragon (1981). In the quarter of a century since our appetite for all things, Lecter remains undiminished. Earlier this year, the first series of the NBC television network’s Hannibal ended, with Mads Mikkelsen the latest actor in a line of distinguished predecessors to play the famous cannibal. Such was its reception that the show has been renewed for a second series. In this post, I’d like to reflect on why we keep returning to Dr Hannibal Lecter.
Serial killer fiction, as we have seen, has given us some of crime fiction’s most iconic characters and none perhaps more so than Hannibal Lecter. The brilliant psychiatrist turned cannibalistic murderer retains his ability to terrify us, despite the underlying charm. His is a charm that draws us in, even though we know what lies beneath. Readers and critics have long speculated over the real-life inspiration for Hannibal Lecter. Before he was a novelist, Thomas Harris worked as a reporter specialising in crime and local police stories. It was only as recently as this year that he finally revealed that he based Lecter on a doctor he met in the 1960s. The man was serving a life sentence for murder in a Mexican jail. Harris was sent to interview the man, and initially, he mistook him for the prison doctor, so drawn in was he by the man’s elegance and charm. Remind you of anyone?
In my view, it is the back story that brings Lecter to life. Born into a wealthy Lithuanian family Lecter and his sister Mischa witness their parents die at the hands of Nazis, who overcome with hunger, later kill and eat Mischa, thus nurturing Lecter’s own cannibalism. Lecter moves into an orphanage in France, where he excels academically at medical school, a talent which will propel him to the United States. Even more compelling though is the back story which outlines the relationship between Lecter and Will Graham. For many, Graham is the more interesting character since he is the man who actually caught Hannibal Lecter, a feat that almost cost him his life. At the beginning of Red Dragon, Will Graham is retired despite still being a young man. He lives with his family in Florida but is brought out of retirement to help investigate a series of murders. He turns to Lecter, now in prison, for assistance. It is the back story relationship, and the interplay between the two, and the other central character Jack Crawford, which is the focus of Hannibal, NBC’s television programme. This is a welcome development as I always found it interesting that previously when most people thought of Lecter, they also thought of Clarice Starling, rather than Graham or Crawford. That’s the power of Hollywood I guess.
He is one of the few non-detective characters in crime fiction to have become synonymous with the genre. To learn earlier this year that he was based on a real-life murderer only adds to his allure. Let’s raise a glass (to go with the liver) to Dr Hannibal Lecter.