One day in the early 1980s, the public-affairs office of the FBI asked Agent Robert Ressler to take a researching author around the Behavioural Science Unit - an outfit Ressler himself had played a major part in developing, and which was charged with the task of profiling, tracking and bringing to justice serial killers. The agent spent several hours with the author, showing him slides for various cases and discussing the series of interviews he had conducted with incarcerated serial killers. By Ressler's own account, the author was "like a sponge, saying little but absorbing everything". His name, of course, was Thomas Harris.
I'm not at all surprised that Harris was so silent during his encounter with Ressler. I expect he realised immediately that he'd lucked out in that most prized of literary gifts: good copy. Ressler also told Harris about how the FBI was reaching out to psychiatrists and other mental-health experts for further help with the bureau's caseload. It was these two ideas - the prison interviews, and the psychiatric consultants - that Harris fused to create probably the most lucrative single fictional character of the past quarter-century: Dr Hannibal Lecter. Hannibal the Cannibal: aesthete, dandy, gourmet, mnemonist, and some kind of sick genius.
Soon after this first meeting, Harris published Red Dragon (1981), in which Lecter makes his debut, part-assisting, part-manipulating the FBI profiler Will Graham. Like Harris's first novel, Black Sunday (1975) - which had the dubious distinction of being the first thriller to envisage a large-scale terrorist attack on American soil - Red Dragon was both a bestseller and then a successful film: Manhunter (1986), directed by Michael Mann. Then Harris paid Ressler a second visit. On this occasion the FBI man told him about the case of Ed Gein, who became the model for Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs, and also introduced him to the sole female agent working at the BSU at the time. No points for guessing who she became.
Ressler, whose superb book Whoever Fights Monsters is the definitive account of the serial killer phenomenon, was picked clean by Harris's acquisitive psyche, and his flesh transferred on to both Graham and the avuncular, upright bureau chief Jack Crawford, who features in two of the Lecter books. With a lack of ego that would shame most of us, Ressler is nothing but admiring of Harris's thievery. He describes the novels as "superb", with this one caveat: "they are not truly realistic in their portrayal of the serial killers. For instance, in the serial killer of [Red Dragon], Francis Dolarhyde, Harris combines attributes of several different sorts of killers, personality dynamics that would be highly unlikely to coexist in one person in the real world."
Ressler's point is reinforced by the context within which this new book has been published. That Hannibal Rising is number one on the hardback fiction bestsellers list could have been predicted. But it was the sickest of serendipity that piles of the novel ended up in supermarket displays beside newspaper front pages which, in the run-up to Christmas, were blazoned with speculation and innuendo about the activities and identity of the Ipswich serial killer. No marketing department could have made that one up.
The psychological profile of the killer sought by the Suffolk Police offered a portrait of an "anti-Lecter". The man they were looking for was a loner, probably working in a manual occupation; his "memory palace" - if he had such a thing - was more likely to be furnished with garish S&M pornography than with Old Masters. Far from targeting the rude and the stupid, this man killed five, vulnerable and mentally ill women (if you consider drug addiction and the post-traumatic syndrome associated with street prostitutes who have been raped or assaulted to be a mental illness, and I most certainly do). The killer - like Dennis Nilsen before him - probably favoured the gloopy sounds of Clannad over the Goldberg Variations so esteemed by Lecter. And so on.
These kinds of consideration barely impinge on the Hannibal series - Ressler avoids describing Lecter himself as "unrealistic", as this would simply be stating the obvious. The first two Hannibal books are very fine thrillers indeed: compulsively readable, and as significant a way into their subject - evil - as the work of Georges Simenon or Patricia Highsmith. They also offer a superb evocation of their era: hymning the way the serial killer came to define a particular aspect of the modern American collective psyche, its underlying anomie and alienation. But Hannibal (1999) and Hannibal Rising are little more than evil twaddle. Ridiculous speculations on the nature of his psychopathic protagonist are there simply to justify Harris's lengthy - and rather nerdish - researches.
In Hannibal, Harris "did" the Renaissance as thoroughly as any wealthy American taking the modern Grand Tour. There was plenty of guff about beautiful palazzi and priceless daubs; clearly, he had spent a lot of time truffling in libraries. In Hannibal Rising, we have the fruits of seven more years' dilettantism. This time, Harris shows us that he knows a great deal about Japanese flower arranging, Lithuanian aristocracy, Paris in the aftermath of the Second World War and, naturally, enormous viscous heaps of anatomy. I won't trouble you with the rest of his murderous search for authenticity, save to say that, even when it's going well, Harris manages to hamstring your suspension of disbelief.
Thus we have references to a "Rube Goldberg contraption" (something only a US readership of a certain age would comprehend), while ana chronistically, given that the book is set in the 1940s, one of Lecter's hallucinations is described as being like "a hologram". Towards the end, a character is identified by his resemblance to Lawrence Welk. While the big-band leader who created "champagne music" did not become nationally famous until the mid-1950s, let's not quibble about this: the fact is that he's pretty bloody obscure, and name-checking him jibes with the rather tony impression Harris seeks to create with his blethering about haikus and Huygens's Treatise on Light.
There's also a love interest in Hannibal Rising, and here we learn what Lecter is trying to transmogrify Clarice Starling into when he brainwashes (or brain-dirties) her in Hannibal. It is the fragrant Lady Murasaki, a cut-out Japanese courtesan of such cheesy eroticism that when she makes love - she is married to young Hannibal's uncle - "she [takes] exquisite care to spare him exertion". Yeuch. But ultimately, it's the arrant ridiculousness of the whole enterprise that makes Hannibal Rising such a naff thriller.
When Hannibal Lecter was a bit player in the saga, his character added a strange, lime-lit lustre to the grosser activities of the other serial killers. Ressler was certainly right about the unlikelihood of any serial killer being remotely like the Tooth Fairy or Buffalo Bill, yet their implausibility is as nothing compared to Lecter's.
If Harris is to be believed, Hannibal Lecter, while being something of a maddening prodigy, was none the less a perfectly well-behaved little boy until the Blitzkrieg rolled over Castle Lecter. He was, however, inordinately attached to his little sister, Mischa. In the dying days of the war, the 12-year-old Hannibal witnessed a gang of hideous "hiwees" (irregular Lithuanians who collaborated with the Nazis) boil her up in her own bathtub and eat her. The rest, as Hannibal might say, is gastronomy: he sets out to track her killers down, one by one, and dine unto them as they dined unto her.
As to his creation's psychopathology, it would seem that Harris is saying - well, what precisely? That Lecter's avocation to murder the rude and the stupid is explicable - understandable, even - due to this grotesque trauma? Or is Lecter perhaps a personification of western culture, which on the one hand displays such a great treasure house of knowledge, while on the other it continues to cannibalise the resources of those rude and stupid enough to belong to the "developing world"? This hardly seems likely.
Which is not to say that Hannibal Rising isn't readable. It is, horribly readable: I romped through it, and it left me feeling sick and full of self-loathing. The initial hardback print run is 1.5 million copies; doubtless, like its predecessors, the book will be the springboard for one, or three, film adaptations. I don't suppose Harris much mourns the way that, having breathed more and more life into Lecter, the good doctor (and psychiatrist) has now murdered his own talent. I rather suspect that Lecter has begun - as he did with the crass Paul Krendler in Hannibal - to eat his own creator's brain.
Perhaps none of this would matter if Lecter were not such a popular creation, if his homicidal antics were not so thrilling to so many. Because far from being reasoned evocations of the downbeat horror of murder, Harris's descriptions of Lecter's killings read like breathless ballet reviews: "Hannibal stepping to the side and turning with the blow slashed Paul across the kidneys." The way that Harris sets this stuff down reads sickeningly, in the fearful, grimy light of what happened to the women in Ipswich, and leaves a foul taste in the mouth. With a suspected serial killer in police custody in Suffolk, Lecter becomes - at best - just another psycho path, and, at worst, a dreadful indictment of his creator's moral vacuity.
Will Self's "The Book of Dave" is published by Viking