How Thomas Harris defined a genre and created fiction’s most likeable villain

He created one of our greatest anti-heroes, Hannibal Lecter. With a new book on the horizon, journalist and Thomas Harris superfan Tom Tivnan investigates the writer’s legacy and how he has dominated the crime-thriller genre, from print to screen.

Tom Tivnan
Hannibal Lecter
Hannibal Lecter in The Silence Of The Lambs, played by Anthony Hopkins

After a 13-year hiatus, Thomas Harris returns with his latest book, Cari Mora. Harris is renowned for his ability to make monsters, but not those of the mythical or supernatural variety – monsters that are utterly human and feel far from fictional. 

His most famous character is, of course, Dr. Hannibal Lecter. The witty, charming, whip-smart forensic psychiatrist who loves fine wines, art and classical music, and just so happens to be a ruthless serial killer with a penchant for eating his victims in his spare time. Hannibal ‘the Cannibal’ has gripped the public imagination for nearly 40 years since he first appeared in Harris’s second book, Red Dragon. It is not hyperbolic to suggest that Lecter is one of the greatest literary monsters ever created, on a par with Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Mr Hyde, or Pennywise, the clown in Stephen King’s It. Harris’s work has been deep and influential, kick-starting a genre of horror-crime which many authors have tried to emulate – think of recent hits like Ray Celestin’s The Axeman’s Jazz or Jeff Lindsay’s Dexter books – but, with all due respect to those very talented writers, have never quite equalled.  

'It’s hard to deny Harris’s influence when one of the writer’s most vocal admirers is the inimitable Stephen King, a long-time fan'

It’s hard to deny Harris’s influence when one of the writer’s most vocal admirers is the inimitable Stephen King, a long-time fan. King enthused about Red Dragon (‘the best popular novel to be published in America since The Godfather’), raved over Hannibal (‘one of the two most frightening popular novels of our time, the other being The Exorcist’) and recently tweeted: ‘Reading [Harris’] prose is like running a slow hand down cold silk’.  

Harris’s influence has stretched far beyond the books, and those who have not read him will undoubtedly be familiar with his work through the big-screen adaptions. All five of Harris’s previous books have been made into films (Red Dragon has been adapted twice). The most famous is of course The Silence of the Lambs, with Anthony Hopkins as Lecter and Jodie Foster as intrepid FBI agent Clarice Starling, who must enlist Hannibal’s help to trap another serial killer. The Silence of the Lambs was resoundingly successful and is one of only three films ever to sweep the ‘Big Five’ awards at the Oscars (best film, actor, actress, director and screenplay). Lecter became an international bogeyman (the mask and straitjacket Hopkins wore in one memorable scene are instantly recognisable and remain a Halloween fancy dress favourite), lines from the film have been oft-quoted (‘I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti’), and in the mid-noughties the American Film Institute named Lecter as the greatest villain in US cinema history. 

And the legacy continues, with the three-season run of Hannibal, the TV series starring Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen in the titular role (lovers of the show, incidentally, call themselves ‘Fannibals’). Maybe the great swathe of merchandise demonstrates how deeply Lecter has sunk his fangs into the culture. There is a spin-off cookery book from the TV show, Feeding Hannibal (the mind boggles at what the recipes could be), an Italian vintner sells Cannibal Chianti (‘medium-bodied and well balanced, with savoury plum and tobacco leaf notes’, apparently) while at this writing there are nearly 1,000 listings for Lecter-themed accessories on the handmade and craft website Etsy.

The trouble with being a Thomas Harris fan is that it is a long time between books: his newest, Cari Mora, is his first outing in 13 years; prior to that, Hannibal Rising was a relatively short seven years in the making. The novels are well worth the wait, though, and Cari Mora is no exception, full of Harris’s trademark delicious mix of danger, monsters, greed and dark desires. It is a Lecter-free standalone novel named after its protagonist, the tough but smart Cari, who, years after escaping her life in Colombia, where she was forced to be a child soldier, has been living in Miami with somewhat shaky immigration status. One of her jobs is as a caretaker for an uninhabited mansion, formerly the US pile of drug kingpin Pablo Escobar. Unbeknownst to Cari, $25m worth of cartel gold lies buried beneath the house. Enter Hans-Peter Schneider, a man of ‘unspeakable appetites’ who makes a living bringing to life the violent fantasies of rich men. Schneider is after the gold, as are a gang of Escobar’s old associates. Cari is caught between the factions just as Schneider’s obsession with her begins to grow.

Under the radar

Thomas Harris
Thomas Harris

Harris deliberately keeps a very low profile. He is as off the grid as any bestselling author could be, having given his last full interview in 1976. He is often called a J. D. Salinger/Thomas Pynchon-type recluse, but that is far from accurate. Friends say Harris is very sociable, loves to throw dinner parties, corresponds with readers and is happy to pose for selfies with fans. He just wants the books to speak for themselves.  

This has not sat well with the media. Every so often, a reporter is despatched to one of Harris’s haunts – he generally splits his time between Sag Harbor, New York and Miami – to search the local area for the elusive author, almost as if they were David Attenborough scrabbling through the Serengeti plains hoping to catch a glimpse of the rarely sighted East African Oryx.  

Around the time Hannibal was released, a Washington Post hack was sent to track Harris down in Sag Harbor, the posh and bookish seaside resort in the Hamptons (past famous writer residents include John Steinbeck and E. L. Doctorow). The town can also claim a particular place in literary history as Harris wrote The Silence of the Lambs in an office he rented on the main drag above Marty’s Barber Shop (Marty’s and Harris’s old office, alas, has since burned down). The Post reporter never spots the author but meets many people – including Kurt Vonnegut and the playwright Lanford Wilson – who attest to Harris’s friendliness. Harris’s agent Mort Janklow tries to explain how uninterested his client is in publicity: ‘If you gave me a cheque for $1m, he wouldn’t give you a three-cent interview.’ Perhaps the only really elucidating moment of the article is when activist and The Feminine Mystique author Betty Friedan says, laughing: ‘Sure, I know Tommy Harris. He is this sweet Southern person, and underneath is this sadistic imagination.’ 

Friedan hints at the crux of why people are interested in Harris’s life: what makes someone who seems happy and well-adjusted reach such a dark place in their writing? Where does it all come from?   

Well, it must have begun in the South. Harris was born in Jackson, Tennessee in 1940 to an engineer father and high-school teacher mother. The family soon moved to the small town of Rich, Mississippi, where Harris grew up a shy and studious child. He studied English at Baylor University in Texas, where he also wrote for the local newspaper. He graduated in 1964, spent a couple of years travelling around Europe, then moved to New York to work as a crime reporter for the Associated Press (one of his colleagues was Nicholas Pileggi, whose Mafia exposé Wiseguy would be made into Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas). It was at the AP that Harris, with two friends, came up with the idea for Black Sunday, Harris’s first novel. The potboiler, centring on a terrorist plot at the Super Bowl, was released in 1975, became an instant bestseller and was made into a hit 1977 film. Flush with Black Sunday cash, Harris chucked his journalism job and turned to writing fiction full-time.  

Tried and true crime

'While some books don’t age well, the Lecter quartet stands the test of time. Partly because the novels are not all about Hannibal'

Harris clearly chooses to be judged solely by his work, and it speaks loudly. One of the joys of having a new book from him is the opportunity to reappraise his older titles – and in doing so it is startling not just how well they hold up, but how fresh and contemporary they are. 

Although his debut Black Sunday is not classic Harris, it follows some standard tropes of 1970s disaster fiction and can be viewed as a debut novelist trying things out. Or, as Stephen King once put it: ‘[Black Sunday] seems to have been written before the author himself clearly understood what he was up to.’ But even Black Sunday has interesting flashes and perhaps has a greater resonance for readers in a post-9/11 world. 

Yet the four Lecter books are where Harris truly found his voice. At their very heart, and what makes them great, is the upending of our usual perceptions of the villain. Harris’s scalpel-sharp, not-a-word-wasted prose gives us a Lecter who is cold, calculating and terrifying, yet also compelling and often – though we try not to admit it to ourselves – damn likeable. We see his vanity and narcissism but also unmistakeable charisma and deep cunning. And it helps that beneath the violence there is a moral code to his killing, dark and twisted though it may be, which a Lecter comment in Hannibal perhaps sums up: ‘Whenever possible, I always try to eat the rude.’ As that line shows, Harris’s books can also be very funny – humour that is Stygian in its blackness, sure, but funny all the same.   

While some books don’t age well, the Lecter quartet stands the test of time. Partly because the novels are not all about Hannibal: we are centred by the good guys like Starling and Red Dragon’s Will Graham, who are courageous and nuanced but, in their own ways, deeply damaged and utterly compelling. Another key is that there is a definite arc for Lecter: from the almost pure rage in Red Dragon to the somewhat exculpatory back story in Hannibal Rising, we see the development of evil.

And isn’t that what many of us are looking for today? In the true crime podcasts we listen to and the huge range of shows we watch – Mindhunter, True Detective, The Fall, Conversations with a Killer and the raft of others which owe a huge debt to Harris’s work – we are fixated on what drives some of us to do the darkest deeds. There are undoubtedly a myriad of deep, psychological reasons why these tales resonate; perhaps what we often fear most are not demons or the supernatural, but humans, and what we are capable of doing to each other. Thomas Harris has tapped into this terror, and rereading his books makes you appreciate that Harris did it first, and he still does it best.   

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