Today's alternate title: Blame Mom.
Disclaimer: This is a book review. I don't think I'm giving away too much of the plot, but read at your own risk.
Hannibal Lecter makes serial killing look easy, and we finally get to find out why. Turns out it was the eastern front in World War II that did the damage. Hannibal started the war as the eight year old son of Count Lecter of Lithuania living in the castle his ancestors had built 500 years ago and filled with famous works of art and literature. He ended the War as an orphan living in the same castle which had been commandeered by the Soviets as an orphanage.
Hannibal Rising is the prequel a lot of people have been waiting for. Author Thomas Harris finally gives Hannibal an Episode 1. You have to hand it to Harris. He's created one of the most compelling evil characters of the 20th Century. As near as I can tell, Harris has written five books. Four of them are about Hannibal Lecter, and all have been made into movies. One of them even got made into two movies.
Hannibal has always been an interesting contrast. On the one hand he's brilliant and civilized. He's a doctor and surrounds himself by all the refined pleasures the world has to offer. Wine, gourmet food, music, opera, literature. On the other hand he's a cannibalistic murderer. He's the ultimate villain. The deductive reasoning abilities of Sherlock Holmes with no moral or conscience what so ever. A character like that is money in the bank. Complete lack of morals and conscience are what make a truly fascinating villain.
This time around Harris gives us a look at what made Hannibal the way he is. His early childhood was as eastern European nobility with the best that money could buy. Precocious young Hannibal had a genius tutor and access to some of the greatest works of art in Europe. Until the Nazi blitzkrieg.
I won't go into details, but I don't think I'm giving anything away when I say the war treats Hannibal badly. At the end of the war he's an orphan too traumatized to speak and he lives in Hannibal Castle which has been converted into an orphanage by the Soviets. Eventually his uncle's Japanese wife brings him back to reality as he admires her beauty and refinement. And the rest of the book is about his revenge on the soldiers and war profiteers who did him wrong.
There's really no way to justify what Hannibal does in the earlier books, but this one goes a long way toward explaining it. A Russian winter spent in captivity to looters explains his cannibalistic tendencies. The fate of his little sister explains the protective feelings he has toward certain people in his life and his extreme reactions to threats toward people under his protection. So you have it all wrapped up in a neat little package. Hannibal's love of the finer things in life was instilled in him by his Japanese aunt, and the brutality and willingness to commit brutal murders came from the war.
I was actually a little disappointed to learn Hannibal's back story. It was just like Darth Vader. It just ruins a villian to find out they used to be regular folks. I feel a little cheated to find out villains are that way because of their baggage. I prefer my evil to be just for the sake of selfish evil. It's a nice writer's trick to make you feel sympathy for the villain, but it makes me feel dirty to be sympathetic toward Hannibal Lecter. The writers of The Wire use that trick to their advantage regularly. I suppose you can also see it in the way he picks his victims. They've never went into any detail about the murders that originally put him in prison prior to the novels, but most of the murders he commits while we watch are actually reprisals for slights to Lecter or someone he likes.
I also found it very interesting when I read the earlier stuff by Harris. He's written four books now which include Hannibal Lecter. In the first two Lecter was a supporting character. Harris uses A caged resource used by the FBI to find other serial killers. After the 'Silence of the Lambs' movie Hannibal suddenly blew up. He's the focus of the novels after that. I think the factor that made Hannibal big is Anthony Hopkins. He was an interesting supporting character until Hopkins made him real. 'Red Dragon', the first novel with Lecter was made into a movie called 'Manhunter' prior to 'Silence of the Lambs', but once Hopkins took over as Lecter in 'Silence' they actually did it again with Hopkins. I think it's safe to say Harris created the character, but Hopkins made him a household name. (It's also a commentary on the effects of books versus movies on our culture. Books rarely hit it big until they become a movie.)
I'm reserving judgment on the Hannibal Rising movie until I see it, but it's sitting on the coffee table right now. I was impressed that it was released almost simultaneously with the book this time.