Silver Anniversary for Dr Hannibal Lecter!

In the history of literature there are only a handful of books that stand head and shoulders above the many hundreds of thousands of titles that have been published.

Some classics include ‘Of Mice and Men’, ‘Catch 22’ and ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ and classics such as ‘Pride and Prejudice’ and Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’ to name but a few. These memorable books can signify a certain period in reader’s lives or freeze frame a moment of great importance that is for ever connected to that particular book. I know I have certain titles that evoke a memory from my past just by seeing the cover. Such is the power of the written word.

Crime fiction also has titles that have become a phenomenon in their own right. I remember reading ‘Postmortem’ by Patricia Cornwell and seeing a whole new vista of crime fiction open up before me. ‘The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo’ was not only a phenomenon in its own right but started the craze known as ‘Scandie Crime’, a fashion that is still causing a ripple effect five years later. And then we have ‘The Da Vinci Code’ which spawned its own sub-genre.

But this month we celebrate a book which finds itself at the grand age of twenty-five. I was shocked when I read that ‘The Silence of the Lambs’ had been around so long, but unlike the other books I have mentioned, the one thing I believe makes it stand out amongst the others is not just the fact that it is a brilliant crime novel – but by the pure fact that the main character has become far bigger than the book itself.

Whenever you mention this title the first thing that springs from people’s lips is ‘Dr. Hannibal Lecter’! (or even ‘Hannibal the Cannibal’). It is amazing how this man, this figment of Harris’ imagination has captured the whole world. Even if they haven’t read the book and only seen the film, Hannibal is the first thing people think of. So why is it that this character has struck such a cord with the whole world – a man who kills without compunction and is a cannibal?

Is it because he is highly intellectual and yet a killer that makes Lecter such a mysterious and yet attractive figure? Are we drawn to him like a moth to a flame because of his enigmatic personality? Is it because Harris made him a cannibal, a taboo subject that any person in their right mind is repulsed by, but at the same time, strangely drawn to? What is it that is so fascinating about a person eating another human being?

Lecter was first introduced in ‘Red Dragon’ in 1981 but I believe it was the chemistry between him and Clarice Starling that made ‘The Silence of the Lambs’ the classic it has become today. This chemistry between the academic and the trainee was brought perfectly to the screen by Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins (both won the Oscar for their portrayals of these characters, cementing the greatness of this title for all time).

‘The Silence of the Lambs’ was the first film of its kind to win both Academy Awards for the two main characters as well as ‘Best Film’, ‘Best Director’ and ‘Best Adapted Screenplay’. This was a huge achievement. I remember seeing ‘Silence of the Lambs’ for the first time and it scared the pants off me. I slept with the lights on that night!

So what makes this book such a success and still being published 25 years later when so many have fallen by the wayside? What sets this book apart is the dialogue between Lecter and Starling. Although the dialogue was already there for the film, Hopkins brought Lecter to life so magnificently that whenever I read it I do hear his voice asking Starling on her first visit about Miggs who resides a few cells down from Lecter. Everything the man says has an undercurrent, an underlying meaning in every sentence. With Lecter you have to read between the lines to get at what the man really means.

But Lecter is also infused with the sickest sense of humour. When Starling asks him why Buffalo Bill has kidnapped and scalped several women and whose latest victim is Catherine Baker Martin, Lecter’s reply is simple:

‘He wants a vest with tits on it.’

From this man’s warped mind we see a cocktail of humour, a mocking countenance towards those he believes intellectually inferior, along with a sense that murder to remove a nuisance is justified. Again, Lecter was the blueprint for many pretenders who have tried and failed to bring us the progeny of Lecter himself. But there will only ever be one Hannibal Lecter. And that is why he has endured where others have vanished. Harris managed to repulse us from, and at the same time attract us to, Dr Hannibal Lecter. This in itself is a remarkable feat. And it is this element alongside a brilliant plot that has many crime writers of today citing ‘The Silence of the Lambs’ as their favourite crime novel of all time. It isn’t difficult to see why.

Here's to the next twenty-five years, Dr. Lecter!


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