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Sumptuous dining in a madman's palace

By Lauren Hejna-Doan

Thomas Harris cooks up an extraordinary experience laid out in five generous courses with the release of his newest and most anticipated novel about everyone's most beloved cannibal, Hannibal Lecter.

Structured in five tasty sections, "Hannibal" is a deluxe feast for the imagination that may actually leave the reader as satisfied as if he or she had spent hours indulging in a five-course meal with the world's most famous chefs and most divine members of society. It is an extraordinary combination of psychological examination blended with intricate plots that are rich with delectable settings and peppered with superbly crafted allusion, symbolism and imagery.

The characters are, for the most part familiar. Special Agent Clarice Starling returns along with her mentor Agent John Brigham. Also joining the cast are Barney Hersh, the guard at the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, where Dr. Lecter was held after his incarceration seven years earlier. General Inspector Paul Krendler visits as well. And of course, there is the insatiable serial murderer Hannibal "the Cannibal" Lecter, whose claim to fame is eating the organs of the tragically rude.

One gets the distinct sense that Agent Starling and Dr. Lecter do well to be classified as matriarch and patriarch of this novel. Neither has an arsenal of allies, but each controls the fate of many -- with the general difference being that Clarice Starling is the saint to Lecter's devil. But as different as they are morally, there is strong sense that the agent and her serial murderer are more closely related in spirit than would normally be accepted.

But this is not a normal world. Among the criteria for Lecter's victims is the distinct inability to show any sense of good taste. And as this novel's predecessor "Silence of the Lambs" made very clear, whether in the liver of his victim or in the very wine he chooses to accompany his dishes, taste is everything to Lecter.

Verger Mason, a surviving victim of Lecter's, is a prime example. Mason's fun includes torturing less-fortunate children and fantasizing about his early days stabbing pigs with his father. His deformed spirit and body leave the reader teeming with disgust. He is so contemptible that one has no trouble wishing Lecter to get rid of him for good this time.

This sort of reader catharsis follows suit, in due time, throughout Harris' novel. But to imply "Hannibal" is merely a vividly rich hack-'em-up novel would be, alas, tasteless. Rather, the core of the story is Lecter's heart. Horrors that have plagued him since childhood are revealed, and a deep compassion and understanding is established with the reader and also with Special Agent Clarice Starling.

The relationship that results between Lector and Starling is a lock and key sort of fit. There is a genuine need for each other that almost seems preternatural. They could be two parts of the same soul -- one destined for murder, the other for justice and righteousness.

The conclusion to this novel and to their relationship is stirring and magnificent enough to keep a secret until the very end.

If there is a moral lesson in Hannibal, it is to be ware of our acts of self-indulgence and vanity. We may offend the wrong person by spewing crass words. We may stray from our values, the way Officer Rinaldo Pazzi does when he chooses to insult the incognito Dr. Lecter in Italy by selling him for a bounty instead of staying true to his first love -- justice.

If there is enjoyment in the pages of "Hannibal" it is lies in the oddly logical brand of justice in Dr. Hannibal Lecter's world. But mostly, it lies in the crafting of the lives that mesh and are pulled apart in such a way that the novel begins to read like a well-defined Sonata. Words dance with colors and emotion to the extent that the reader is able to taste contempt and to smell justice.

Thomas Harris has brilliantly given the life of luxury to his readers with this one. It is a full meal prepared with the richest ingredients and the most enriching accents. Savor the heart, and let all the flavors roll into the senses. You may feel a little naughty reading Hannibal, true, but it is advised that you indulge. It is enrichment at play-a concept of which that Dr. Lecter would most eagerly approve.

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