He's back. For weeks, the bloated, red-eyed image of Sir Anthony Hopkins has been gazing out at us from gigantic billboards reminding us that the sequel to The Silence of the Lambs was about to hit the cinema screens. Despite being turned down by the original director, Jonathan Demme, and by Jodie Foster (who accused the author, Thomas Harris, of "betraying Clarice"), Lecter's reappearance has been greeted with the usual frenzy of ecstasy by his adorers - all of them, curiously, male. There's something about the cannibal Hannibal that really turns them on. What can it be?
In The Silence of the Lambs, a measure of compassion was allowed Lecter because he was manifestly not only more intelligent than his captors, but more cultured, too. You may not have felt he was, as one critic put it, "as irresistible as he is evil", but he had his moments of pathos. Why, the man had drawn a view of Florence from memory to enliven his viewless, subterranean cell. He made one of his fellow inmates swallow his own tongue in punishment for discourtesy towards the book's heroine, Clarice Starling. He provided not only crucial hints as to the identity of the serial killer, but also, in getting Clarice to confront the essential trauma of her life, a weird form of therapy. His attraction, then, was not too far removed from Caliban's: he was a monster capable of responding to high art and of speaking good prose. But he was a monster none the less, with his red eyes and extra finger, his amorality safely at one remove from the human. Then, after a ten-year wait, along came Hannibal, and it became clear that his creator had done the one thing a writer must never do - namely, fall in love with his or her own creation. However, many others, men in particular, share this attachment.
Lecter is not the first highly intelligent murderer in fiction (consider Sherlock Holmes's adversary, Moriarty), although he is the most extravagantly so. For sheer cultural name-dropping, only Dorothy L Sayers's Lord Peter Wimsey, with his ability to turn a good sonnet and speak perfect French, comes close. Clever women often adore this kind of tripe - but then, Lord Peter is on the side of the angels. For clever men, post-Lolita and post-Amis, the hero has to be an anti-hero. In The Silence of the Lambs, Lecter is described "walking up and down the room", just as Satan goes to and fro, "walking up and down" the earth in the Book of Job. It is little touches such as this that provide the critical fraternity with a thrill, because although everyone who has done English A-level can recognise the odd quote from T S Eliot, only the possessor of a superior education knows about Job, Dante, Donatello and Florentine scents. This, as John Lanchester possibly realised in his Debt to Lecter (sorry, Pleasure), is not quite so rare and unusual, even for a murderer, but it flatters the intellect of such readers to believe it is.
Whether Lecter is a monster or a parody of one is hardly relevant, though it would be interesting to see what his admirers would make of a serious study of evil, such as Mary Midgley's Wickedness. If a taste for good style married to a thrilling plot were what has driven the success of Harris's novels, the detective stories of Ross Macdonald would have a far wider audience. Lecter poses the ultimate expression of a particular kind of rage that the intellectual male elite, in its embattled state, has largely shared when confronted by the success of mass-market culture and general dumbing-down. If Sherlock Holmes once offered the consolations of showing how superstition and evil could be worsted by outstanding forensic intelligence on the side of good, Lecter plays to the fantasies of those who are powerless, and very angry, by switching sides.
If you can't send murderers to jail, you can become a superior kind of killer yourself - despatching your inferiors and, as the ultimate gesture of contempt, eating them. Not even Humbert Humbert, whose bastard son Lecter clearly is, went quite this far with Lolita's mother. Neither did the talented Mr Ripley: Patricia Highsmith is always aware of his moral (and, correspondingly, aesthetic) vulgarity as a murderer. Lecter is clearly presented as intellectually and aesthetically superior. The inference is that, because of this (and let's not forget his new habit of killing only those who "deserve" it), his crimes do not count.
Mercy, humility, compassion and even courage - all of which Clarice Starling embodied in The Silence of the Lambs, and which did much to mediate it as a fantasy - have become, in Hannibal, not so much powerless to resist as non-existent. Lecter believes that, "like every sentient being, Starling formed from her early experience matrices, frameworks by which later perceptions were understood", and she duly obliges. Such laughable cod-Freud is in keeping with the pretensions to high culture. (One doubts Harris had his tongue in his cheek when writing: "One painting delighted Dr Lecter, an Anne Shingleton with its genius anatomical articulation and some real heat in the fucking.")
For all his massed flowers, amuse-gueules and fine wines, Lecter is banal. The climax of Hannibal, in which Clarice is hypnotised into eating the brains of her former boss, then seduced by fine food and more psychobabble, is one of the silliest imaginable. Critics applaud this climax as "baroque" or "grand guignol". A sceptical reader will simply find it to be, like soft porn, something between the hilarious and the tiresome. As an antidote to the politically correct, the sentimental and the philistine, Lecter can seem a hero for our time. But Nabokov would have had him for breakfast - though he would, I think, have preferred a perfectly boiled egg.