Paul Thomas

Hannibal the Cannibal has Crime Fiction for Breakfast

May 3, 2004 | Americana, Essay

Evelyn Waugh described him as ‘the greatest living American novelist.’ T.S. Eliot and W.H. Auden were equally big fans.

His influence on popular culture was immense. He helped transform Hollywood’s treatment of crime and violence and, according to Time magazine in 1988, ‘inspired more poses and parodies than any other writer of the century save Hemmingway.’

A distinguished successor said he wrote ‘like a slumming angel and invested the sun-blinded streets of Los Angeles with a romantic presence.’

His name was Raymond Chandler and together with Dashiell Hammett he revolutionised crime fiction. Out went the formal mystery novel – predominantly British, plot-driven, law-abiding, middle-class; in came the realistic crime novel - predominantly American, character-driven, extra-legal, uncouthly democratic. Freed from constraints, crime fiction could tackle themes and subjects that had previously been the domain of social realist novelists and did so with a gusto, fluency and narrative drive incompatible with high-brow literature.

Although Hammett blazed the trail, Chandler’s reputation, influence and legacy rest on his creation of a literary archetype who succeeded the tamers of the Wild West in the popular imagination – the wise-cracking private eye with a .38 Special and a fifth of scotch in his bottom drawer – and a powerfully evocative voice – cynical, world weary, crackling with cussedness and self-contempt, yet with a persistent throb of bruised romanticism.

In his famous essay The Simple Art of Murder (Atlantic Monthly, December 1944), Chandler set out his manifesto: ‘Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid … He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honour, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it and certainly without saying it.’

Elsewhere, he defined the ‘emotional basis’ of the hard-boiled crime story thus: ‘It does not believe that murder will out and justice will be done – unless some very determined individual makes it his business to see that justice is done.’

In their different ways Elmore Leonard and James Ellroy, the modern greats of American crime writing, stay true to the tradition. We meet some of Leonard’s leading men in a grey area but they never remain there. Ellroy’s protagonists are a mixed bunch but it’s all relative: when the president is a sex and drug fiend, the director of the FBI a sinister subversive and the chief of detectives a criminal mastermind, what’s a few notches on one’s gun? They may wade through blood but their ultimate destination is redemption, usually in the form of a woman.

Seven decades years on, however, Chandler’s manifesto seems as quaint as bicycle clips and Marlowe, the ‘shop-soiled Sir Galahad,’ seems as anachronistic as the Knights of the Round Table. With Leonard’s passing and Ellroy’s trawl through America’s secret history coming up against the law of diminishing returns, who carries the flag? Patricia Cornwall and Kathy Reichs and the other blood-splattered tellers of tales from the cutting room? No, things are even grimmer. All rise for Thomas Harris and his baleful creation Dr Hannibal Lechter, the thinking person’s cannibal, the hottest ticket in the genre.

How did it come to this? How did a cannibalistic serial killer usurp the man of honour? And what are the implications for crime fiction?

It’s perhaps worth noting that despite the social, economic and technological convulsions of the last 60 years and the general fraying of the social order, these men of honour didn’t operate in a drastically different world to that portrayed in contemporary crime fiction.

As Chandler’s biographer Tom Hiney points out, the first Marlowe novel The Big Sleep featured several alcoholics, a drug-taking psychotic nymphomaniac, a pornography racket, multiple adultery, lavishly described corpses and a homosexual assassin, in addition to murder, blackmail and crooked cops. What was different, however, was that this dark milieu was considered confronting. (Some stuffy dimwits among the ‘trained seals of the critical fraternity’ - as Chandler called them - were too scandalised to recognise a truly original voice, an exhilarating fusion of pulp fiction and literature).

In an indignant review of Hannibal that appears in his collection of essays The War Against Cliché, Martin Amis made the point that, over the course of three novels, Lechter has gone from support act to centre stage and Harris’s attitude towards his creation has gone from clinical detachment to moist admiration.

Amis was having too much fun trashing Harris’s literary pretensions to explore his reasons for elevating Lechter from psychopath to super-being, confining himself to the jibe that Harris had ‘gone gay’ for Hannibal. (Harris, it must be said, asks for this: Hannibal’s galactic intellect and exquisite taste are worshipfully dwelt upon and having FBI agent Clarice Starling, the heroine of The Silence of the Lambs, join him in ecstatic cohabitation in Buenos Aires is surely the ultimate in authorial approval. Greater love hath no writer than this, that he lay down his heroine for his anti-hero).

The transformation may, of course, simply reflect the author’s gratitude towards his creation for making him a very wealthy man. Or is it possible that, out of bemusement or perhaps disgust at the public’s embrace of this incarnation of inhumanity, Harris decided to conduct a little experiment: he would make such a meal of Lechter’s superhuman self-image and loathing for the common people that even the thickest reader couldn’t ignore it. To be a monster is one thing; to be up yourself is something else altogether.

If that was the intention, it backfired. The readers and reviewers either didn’t notice that Hannibal is a towering snob or didn’t mind.

A more likely explanation is that Hannibal simply represents Harris’s coming out as a horror writer. The serial killer’s rightful genre home is, after all, horror rather than crime since Lechter and his fellow predators are our unsuperstitious and scientifically enlightened age’s equivalent of vampires, werewolves, creatures from the black lagoon and things that go bump in the night. Like them, serial killers respond to opportunity and the urgings of their deformed natures. Unlike them, serial killers are real.

By having Starling fall for Hannibal, Harris is placing his creation in a direct line of descent from Count Dracula. The classic vampire story has two linked themes: it’s a rape/seduction fantasy that speaks to the repressed society’s most twisted fixation - that once a girl gets a taste for it, she can’t get enough.

It’s no accident that the vampire sub-genre shares these themes with pornography. Horror’s raison d’etre, like that of pornography, is titillation. Because their potency is measured by the degree of arousal they generate, both are obliged to push the boundaries of explicitness and abnormality.

It’s a far cry from the days when crime fiction took sides in the struggle between good and evil. We’ve breezed past the point at which the line between the two is blurred to enter a squalid region where evil is glamorised and moral relativism rules. This is where mass entertainment resides in the twenty-first century.

One fears for the future of crime fiction. Apart from cultural studies scholars and hard-core crime buffs, does anyone under 40 read Chandler or Hammett or Macdonald, let alone Ross Thomas or Charles Willeford? These men were masters of an American art form and superb writers of twentieth century American prose but to a generation brought up on cinematic overkill, serial killers and forensic pathologists (and pornography), their heroes’ lonely, honourable quests must seem as eccentric as Don Quixote’s.

Crime fiction isn’t going down without a fight. Its response has been to split into more and more specific sub-genres in an attempt to create market niches across the demographic. This is most evident on the healthier female side of the genre where, one suspects, there’s now a fictional private eye representing every kink and fetish known to the lesbian community. Sexual orientation, ethnicity and physical handicaps aside, the point is that the increasing emphasis on the point of difference – a fundamentally commercial imperative – has usually come at the expense of the traditional elements of the superior crime novel: clever plotting, memorable characterisation, narrative impetus and vivid and economical writing.

Besides, long-term this is, if you’ll pardon the pun, finger-in-the-dyke stuff. It might actually be self-defeating in that fewer and fewer writers will be able to transcend their niches and reach a substantial readership. Unless a new generation of readers rejects nihilism and titillation and insists on entertainment with a moral dimension, Chandler will soon be a literary museum piece, tucked away in a dusty corner alongside Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie.

If you think that’s alarmist, consider this: 100 years ago the most popular, most famous, most influential writer on the planet was Rudyard Kipling.

This essay originally appeared in The Diplomat magazine.