Thomas Harris owes Anthony Hopkins a debt that he may never adequately repay. Before Hopkins starred as serial killer Hannibal "The Cannibal" Lecter in the film adaptation of Harris' thriller The Silence Of The Lambs, Harris was already a popular author, with two books under his belt, both adapted to film. But it took Hopkins' sublimely creepy portrayal to catch audiences' imaginations and assure that they'd lay out cash for any book about Lecter, no matter how hacky, tacky, and ill-conceived. The latest, the Silence prequel Hannibal Rising, is at least a step up from the wallowing, pointless grotesqueries of 1999's Hannibal; this installment has its irritating quirks and its notable lacks, but at least it points its Grand Guignol tropes to some purpose.
Born in the '30s in Lithuania, Lecter as a child seems little different from Lecter as an adult; he's still fascinatingly alien, but he lacks depth, even in this deep look into his past. Eight-years-old at the novel's beginning, he's a detached, calculating prodigy who derives great pleasure from mathematical functions and classical education. But he's also devoted to his younger sister Mischa, and he struggles to protect her when the Nazis invade. Years later, mute and amnesiac, he emerges alone into the care of his uncle Robert and Robert's elegant Japanese wife Lady Murasaki; briefly, he's seduced into a sensual, rarified world of Japanese poetry and art. But before long, he's tracking down his wartime tormenters and gruesomely dispatching them. Harris frames Lecter's teen years as a struggle between Murasaki's calm influences and his own urge to vengeance, but it's clear from the beginning (not to mention from previous books) that for Lecter, the two are complementary rather than contradictory.
That foreknowledge of Lecter's adult character makes the book largely unsatisfying; its only twist is a minor one portrayed as a major one, and otherwise, it follows a simple, straight line through Lecter's life, suggesting a series of check marks—oh, here's where he first ate human flesh; ah, that's why he has such sophisticated taste. Harris pads out the simple narrative with elaborate environmental descriptions, often couched in annoyingly pretentious run-on sentences, but stripped of that style, the book might as well read "Hannibal Lecter was born a sociopath. He endured some trauma, loved and lost, and killed some people. The film version comes out in February 2007. Thanks again, Anthony."