Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Hannibal Lecter: Origin, Facts and Fiction

Prologue

More diabolical than Sherlock Holmes's arch nemesis Dr. Moriarty and more lethal than Jaws, Hannibal Lecter, the serial murderer created by author Thomas Harris, has captured the public's fascination like no other fictional character in recent years.   Dr. Hannibal "the Cannibal" Lecter first appeared as a minor but important character in Harris's novel Red Dragon.  In the next book, The Silence of the Lambs, Lecter came into his own, and the movie version highlighted the killer's complex relationship with FBI agent-in-training Clarice Starling.  In these two novels, Lecter, in his indirect, Cheshire-Cat way, advises the FBI as they hunt for headline-making serial killers who are on the loose and very active.  He himself is not the target of law enforcement's full-court press until Hannibal, the third book in this series.  In Hannibal, Lecter is at large and up to his old tricks.  His face altered by plastic surgery, he has taken a new identity and moved to Rome, an environment that better suits his cultivated tastes.  Clarice Starling, now a full-fledged special agent, picks up his trail, hoping to recapture the wily psychoanalyst with a taste for human flesh.

Jodie Foster with Anthony Hopkins behind
Jodie Foster with Anthony Hopkins behind

But who is Hannibal Lecter?  What real-life models did Harris use in creating him?  How much of him is fiction and how much is based on fact?  Is he purely a literary invention, or could someone like him actually be walking the streets right now?

Book cover: Silence of the Lambs
Book cover: Silence of the Lambs

The portrait Harris paints of Dr. Lecter is vivid and terrifying.  His eyes are maroon in color, and his voice has a hint of a metallic rasp.  His teeth are small and white.  A mature man well into middle age, Lecter is small and compact, and moves with unusual grace and silence.   He has six fingers on one hand, the middle finger "perfectly replicated... the rarest form of polydactyly." His sense of smell is highly developed as exhibited by his ability to detect Clarice Starling's brand of perfume—L'Air du Temps—on their first meeting in The Silence of the Lambs, even though she hadn't worn any that day. 

Hannibal in his cage
Hannibal in his cage

Before he was caught, he was a respected psychiatrist and patron of the arts in Baltimore, Maryland.   He was born in eastern Europe to an aristocratic family but suffered unspeakable hardship as a boy during World War II.   Fourteen homicides have been attributed to him, though authorities suspect that there were probably others.

These are the "facts" of Thomas Harris's master creation, but was there a real-life model that Harris used for Lecter?  Harris rarely gives interviews and prefers to let his work speak for itself.  It's known that he did research at the FBI's Behavioral Science Unit (now called the Investigative Support Unit) when writing these books and learned the specifics of serial murderers and their habits from real profilers.  How much did he take from the case files he was allowed to review and how much came from his own imagination?

Since the author will not tell us (and frankly what author would?), perhaps we can sleuth this out the way a profiler would—start with what we know about Lecter and build a profile on him that we can compare to other real-life serial killers.

(For the purpose of this analysis, I will use only the literary Hannibal Lecter, the version of him that appears in the novels.  As good as some of the cinematic portrayals have been—particularly Anthony Hopkins's bone-chilling interpretation—it will be more beneficial to work from the primary source material.)

 

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