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Ah, Hannibal Lecter. No other fictional murderer has captured the collective unconsciousness quite like Thomas Harris’s culinarily-inclined mastermind. What is it about sleek, erudite monster that makes him so indelible? Four novels, five films and a television show might have destroyed another character, or at the least made him over-exposed. Only classic nightmare fodder such as Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster seem to exist in that same rarified air as Hannibal, where repeated use does nothing to fade their own personal brand of darkness.
Part of Hannibal’s continued appeal must lie with the way Harris has chosen Hannibal’s antagonists. The women and men who go up against Hannibal Lechter are all formidable minds in their own right, and so Hannibal’s victories (and defeats) against them are always well-earned.
So how might Hannibal fare against some of the greatest detectives in literary history?
It’s not so much the clues that make Sherlock Holmes curious about the dapper alienist Dr. Lecter, but their absence. The tell-tale cloud of detritus that surrounds us all as consequence of living was absent from Lecter, as if the man scrubbed himself clean every hour. “Or perhaps,” Watson joked, “he isn’t even there at all.” Despite no evidence of wrong-doing, Holmes can’t let the matter go, and becomes obsessed with the man, teasing out the smallest of pieces to Lecter’s true identity. Lecter gleans what Holmes is up to, and in a bout of hubris, invites the detective to his massive estate for dinner. Holmes needs only a sniff to know that succulently-roasted pork loin isn’t pork at all, and everything falls into place.
Key Line: "I speak only of your inevitable destruction,” said Lecter. “You’re clever, Mr. Holmes. But you stand in the way of an individual, whose skill you, with all your cleverness, have been unable to realize. You must stand clear, or be trodden underfoot."
Who Survives: Holmes, but just barely. Hannibal almost succeeds in killing Sherlock before he takes a bullet from Watson’s service revolver.
Hercule Poirot runs into Dr. Lecter when investigating a particularly gruesome series of murders that have taken place in an English resort village. They admire each other’s suits and accessories, and Lecter assists handily in investigation, speaking to Poirot entirely in French. Hastings takes an immediate dislike to Lecter—“I can’t explain it, and I’m not going to. I simply don’t like the chap.”—which Poirot chalks up to general English distrust of foreigners.
It is not until after Poirot and Lecter are celebrating the case being solved and the murderer confessed that Poirot gives Lecter a deeper look. Poirot realizes that the murderer was a protégé of Lecter and he is currently dining on human flesh at approximately the same moment. Poirot, ever the gentleman, confesses that he’s lost his appetite, and hurriedly informs the authorities.
Key Lines: “You know, every wine, even a small wine, has its own personality with its own secret past and its own promises of pleasure in the future. And so those of us who have been witnesses of death as we have - for them, this is a manifestation of life.”
“Not just wine, Poirot...”
Who Survives: Hannibal considers killing Poirot, but cannot bring himself to destroy such an impressive mind. He flees instead, and Inspector Japp brings the assembled police to an empty house.
Spenser isn’t even LOOKING into anything near the murders Hannibal commits. He’s following a kidnapped girl, because people pay him to solve kidnappings, not murders. But when he finds the kidnapped girl unharmed and her obstenible kidnapper hung by his own intestines from the rafters, Spenser is surprised to find he’s still capable of surprise. He gets paid for returning the girl, but the murder weighs on him more than it should. Susan, ever the psychologist, sees this and arranges a meeting with an old colleague. Dr. Lecter does this sort of work with FBI, and wouldn’t it be nice to have him over for dinner?
Key Lines: “Susan said you’re a whiz in the kitchen. You have any suggestions, make them. I'm in charge but humble.”
Lecter said, "Mind if I snicker every once in a while behind your back?"
"Hell, no," I said. "Everyone else does.”
Who Survives: Clever as he is, Spenser is far too much of the type that Hannibal dines on regularly, so there’s no way he walks away from the encounter. Where Hannibal trips up is that he tries to go after Hawk. And you can’t kill Hawk.
Nick and Nora travel to the East Coast to barely put up with another member of Nora’s illustrious family, the highlight of which is an extravagant dinner party put on by the toast of Baltimore society, Hannibal Lecter. While Lecter’s initial stinginess with the booze tries Nick and Nora’s patience, eventually the liquor is loosed and good time is had by all. It’s not until an old friend of Nick’s from his detective days asks for help with a particularly grisly series of murders that a pallor starts to fall over the visit. Nick realizes the similarity to the missing organs in the murder victims and the menu items he and Nora devoured at the party. Looks like it’s one more trip back to the Lecter estate—better have a stiff drink before they go. Well, maybe one more....
Key lines: “How about a drop of something before we get started?”
“I am afraid the amuse-bouche must be enjoyed sober to be properly appreciated.”
“With all due respect to your first course, Dr. Lecter,” I said. “We didn't come to Baltimore to stay sober.”
Who Survives: Lecter gives a good fight, seriously wounding Nick. But he doesn’t account for Asta, and the small Schauzer distracts Hannibal long enough for Nora to take him out for good. Nick and Nora resolve never to visit Baltimore again.
When one of the California Fidelity insurance employees turns up dead with his lungs missing, Kinsey Millhone is on the case. Nevermind that the local police and the FBI (who thinks the MO is strikingly close to the Chesapeake Ripper on the East Coast) are already investigating—Kinsey’s not going to turn down a chance at rent-free office space just because there’s other detectives. But having more eyes doesn’t mean they can see anything: it’s Kinsey who turns up more murders that the police and the FBI have overlooked. And it’s Kinsey who figures out the connection between the California Fidelity employee’s cold call to visiting psychiatrist Hannibal Lecter and his unfortunate demise.
Key Lines: “I don't take death-and-dismemberment talk very seriously. Where could you rent a chainsaw at this time of night?”
“Chainsaws are at best, imprecise, Miss Millhone.”
Who Survives: Like so many Alphabet Series antagonists, Hannibal underestimates Kinsey as a threat, and never realizes the woman in the turtleneck sweater who trims her hair with toenail clippings is the one who delivered him right into the waiting hands of the FBI.
Chief Brown can’t tell every difficult case at the dinner table. For those cases that are too disturbing to tell his wife and 10-year-old son, he bends the ear of another. Dr. Hannibal Lecter has given invaluable help over the phone, and it is not long before the conversations between the police chief and the psychiatrist take a personal turn. Hannibal is impressed that Brown’s son Leroy has started his own detective agency, and wastes no time coming to their home in Florida to meet the boy in person. Impressed by Encyclopedia Brown’s observation skills, Hannibal takes the kid under his wing. Hannibal ends teaching Encyclopedia more about human nature than the boy every dreamed.
Key Lines: “No one, grown-up or child, gets away with breaking the law in Idaville.”
“What a charming idea,” said Hannibal. “But you’re far too smart a boy to truly believe that, aren’t you?”
Who Survives: No one. We’re all dead if Hannibal raises Encyclopedia Brown.
How would your favorite fictional detective stack up against Hannibal Lecter?