FBI agent Jack Crawford sends trainee Clarice Starling on what should be a fairly routine excursion. Her task is to persuade Dr. Hannibal Lecter to complete a psychological questionnaire. To do so would be quite a coup; ‘Hannibal the Cannibal’ is an object of ongoing curiosity - a highly intelligent psychiatrist with an unfortunate fondness for killing and eating people. When Clarice visits him at the asylum he makes a prediction about Crawford’s latest case, a serial killer who partially flays his victims. When Buffalo Bill fulfills it, Crawford is determined to extract whatever information Lecter might have - especially when he abducts as his next victim a senator’s daughter.
And so Clarice must engage in games of verbal cat and mouse with a very dangerous man: a pure sociopath, and a very astute one. He doles out hints one at a time, even though he knows that Catherine Baker Martin has only days to live; and in exchange he demands that Clarice provide him with information about herself, just as she was warned not to do. Before she has finished with him, petty rivalry intervenes and Lecter is removed from her reach. With no reason to continue trading information, he decides instead to indulge in a bit of fun - and Dr. Lecter loves his fun.
Had I read this book a little earlier, Hannibal the Cannibal would definitely have claimed top spot in my list of villains. Even while lolling about in the Gardens on a warm, sunny afternoon, reading about him is creepy. After all, he’s a cannibal; he was a psychiatrist, who’s supposed to help people but actually murdered them; and he’s scarily smart. Also, he has the ability to seem almost normal: he remains active in his field, and regularly publishes articles. But most of all is the fact that at times you can’t help almost liking him, especially when he’s putting one over the obnoxious Dr. Chilton. He’s not someone you want to exist at all, much less talk to about your childhood the way Clarice is obliged to do.
I really liked Clarice; it’s always good to read about a woman outdoing the men at their own game, especially one with the guts to willingly go after a murderous nutcase. Good thing she did, too, as there was a vital clue to his identity that few if any men could have spotted; I thought that was a nice touch. Her little chats with Lecter made an interesting way to drop in information about her background, and made it easy to understand why she would go into the FBI and risk having to repeat her classes in order to try to save Catherine. The only thing missing was -at least until the end - any sense of her life outside the FBI. But then, perhaps she didn’t really have one. Catherine was another good character; she didn’t just wait for whatever was coming, but had the good sense to do something to keep herself alive. Her tactics led to one of the most nerve-wracking endings I’ve read; if we had a basement, it would probably put me off going down there.
Yes, it’s gory, and you do know who the killer is and what Hannibal’s up to. But the suspense remains, because even though the reader’s not in the dark, the authorities are, and they have a very clear time limit in which to save the day. And for once, I spotted something before it was revealed. Okay, so it was made clear that Hannibal was yanking everyone’s chain, but I could see exactly how.