So, seven years after Hannibal, Thomas Harris delivers the fourth entry in the series that won't stop paying out. Hannibal Rising, badly titled though it is, is a potentially intriguing prequel to the previous three Lecter novels, explaining the "evolution of his evil", from when we first meet him at roughly age eight, to when the book closes, with Hannibal in his early twenties and about to embark upon a medical career in America.
To be brutal, there's not much more to be had from this novel than a synopsis could give (and many have). The noble Lecter family are living in Lecter castle when Hitler's 1941 invasion of the Soviet Union turns the Baltic forests into a bloody disaster area. Hannibal's family are killed in the turmoil, including his treasured little sister Mischa. Hannibal's uncle Robert eventually whisks him away to Paris to live with him and his wife, Japanese Lady Murasaki. Whilst there, he flourishes as a medical student. Uncle Robert dies, and Hannibal remains with Murasaki. The book is easily sectioned off in this way, and eventually turns into a grim revenge tale as Hannibal chases down those soldiers responsible for his sister's death.
And that's it, really. Garnish with a well-turned, ominously poetic sentence or two, then expand with lots of mediocre or downright bad ones, and you have Hannibal Rising. It is both a ridiculous affair and a perfectly enjoyable book. Employ knives of intelligence to get the cut of its jib, and it obviously falls apart - especially when stood against Red Dragon, Silence of the Lambs and even Hannibal (which I will unashamedly praise to anyone interested). However, silence your critical faculties, and the whole thing is fine, replete with all the basic things one might want in a thriller: easy writing, swift pace, interesting settings, apparently interesting characters, a plausible if macabre motive, and, of course, blood, bone and death. And all that is fine, but this is Thomas Harris, and one does expect slightly more than the "basic" things.
It is very hard for me not to be tempted by the idea that the whole thing is a kind of joke, that Harris is being wilfully perverse. His previous novels are testament to his talent, his intelligence, his writerly ability. So where does Hannibal Rising come from? Is he on autopilot, writing with his eyes closed, giving the public what they want? I find it hard to believe that he has "lost" it. Or has he placed his tongue in his cheek and sent Lecter up? This genesis is, after all, one that Lecter himself would find laughable. Or, at least, the Lecter of the first novels would. Indeed, in the first novel he said "nothing bad happened to me" (and had a sixth finger, too). But what does this say about Harris, the way he views his work, his characters, his readers, etc? Either way, I don't think the implications are that good.
More bad things: the characters are, on the face of it, interesting, but in the end they're empty. Even the young Hannibal isn't that interesting. There's no real insight into his mind: it's just like watching a vaguely curious insect respond to light and shade. The chapters are too short. The story has little development. Where's Harris' lush detail? Where's the tautness, or even the suspense? What's the point of the whole book, really?
The worst thing, though, is the entire concept of the thing. The "explanation" of Hannibal Lecter. We didn't need it, and we didn't want it. (Indeed, in terms of "explaining" someone evil, I see strange parallels between this book and Norman Mailer's latest effort!) It removes so much of what made Lecter what he is. Revealing too much of your monster is one of the cardinal sins of this kind of thing (be it a book, or a film, whatever). It's not even a good explanation: guess what, it's Hitler's fault. It's an absolutely ridiculous peg to hang the cause of Lecter's deviance on. It's all the more ridiculous given that Harris explains almost all of Hannibal's foibles in the light of one event from his past. Which is both laughable, and a quite ridiculous idea of how people's characters are formed.
Harris makes us feel empathy for Lecter, and that made me uncomfortable. It's easy, too; the easy way out. Give him a little sister, kill her, oh how we pity. Easy emotional manipulation. I don't think it's morally "wrong" for Harris to make us feel empathetic towards Lecter, that's not really my criticism, but did we really want to? Or need to? It brings us closer to him, and takes a lot away from the previous books because of it. The turnaround Harris has made with the character is almost criminal. It's not necessarily "bad" if it were in isolation, but when measured against Harris's previous work, it doesn't compare at all well. I get the sense that this back-story is exactly the kind of story Lecter himself would make up to amuse people.
In the end, it's an ok thriller. But the whole thing is unnecessary, and even so could have been done a whole lot better. My advice is to leave the original Lecter trilogy alone, and leave this well alone. In the end, it reduces the power of the whole cannon.