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From the outset of Thomas Harris's newest novel, Hannibal, things seem to be going from bad to worse. The resilient yet troubled FBI trainee Clarice Starling of Silence of the Lambs is now a nine-year veteran and in trouble. A drug bust gone wrong has left Clarice with some very bad press, and the threat of termination from the Bureau.

We switch then to Mason Verger, the lone survivor of the long, cannibalistic murder spree of the psychiatrist Hannibal Lecter. Verger, a slimy, mainly soulless pedophile, was coerced into slicing his face to bits and feeding the pieces to his dog by Lecter years ago; now, he wants revenge. His idea is clever and dark, perhaps too gruesome even for Hannibal Lecter. The reader reads on, shocked but exhilarated at this very intense series of events.

Then, something goes wrong. Perhaps it's with Harris' hundred-page side-trip into Florence, Italy, where the action is mainly hinted at rather than shown. Or maybe it's in the casting of Lecter in the form of a Hero and not the brilliant Antihero he was in Red Dragon and Silence of the Lambs. Either way, by the time the novel is done showing us the beautiful sights of Florence, Harris seems to have lost interest in his story, wanting only to deliver terrible shocks juxtaposed with examples of Lecter's taste.

For once, a novel's style seems more important than its story. Harris employs a challenging shifting-of-style tone throughout the book, switching from third to second person at will, and plays around with present and past tenses just for fun. The device is distracting at first (one wonders what time frame Harris is discussing at times), but becomes intriguing - far moreso than the story's plot.

By the novel's truly ludicrous end, one can only wonder why Harris chose to write Hannibal this way. Was it to thumb his nose at Hollywood for commercializing and popularizing Silence? Was it an attempt to top himself, to reach into even darker corners of psychology than his last novel did? Or maybe he just wanted to see what he could get away with. In any event, readers looking for a gourmet meal will end up with a dish served cold: Hannibal is not only a pale comparison to the past Hannibal Lecter novels, but is a bad book in and of itself.