Dr Hannibal Lecter: Sherlock Holmes meets Dracula

David Sexton explores the lineage of one of modern literature and film’s most chilling villains in his critical study, The Strange World Of Thomas Harris
Thomas Harris, The Silence of the Lambs
Thomas Harris, The Silence of the Lambs
One of Lecter’s most obvious fictional precursors is Sherlock Holmes and before him, therefore, Poe’s Dupin. Many of Lecter’s observations are pure Holmes in style, if not content. As he tells Clarice: “‘You use Evyan skin cream, and sometimes you wear L’Air du Temps, but not today.'” On their next meeting, he detects a Band-Aid under her clothes.

Compare Holmes on his first meeting with Watson in A Study In Scarlet: “‘You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive.’ ‘How on earth did you know that?’ I asked in astonishment.’ ” When, at their next meeting, Holmes explains his deductions, the amazed Watson says, rightly enough, “You remind me of Edgar Allan Poe’s Dupin. I had no idea that such individuals did exist outside of stories.”

Anthony Hopkins as Dr Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs (dir. Jonathan Demme, 1991)

Conan Doyle admitted that Poe had been his great influence: “Poe is the master of all. To him must be ascribed the monstrous progeny of writers on the detection of crime… Each may find some little development of his own, but his main art must trace back to those admirable stories of Monsieur Dupin, so wonderful in their masterful force, their reticence, their quick dramatic point. After all, mental acuteness is the one quality which can be ascribed to the ideal detective, and when that has once been admirably done, succeeding writers must necessarily be content for all time to follow in the same main track.” Unless, that is, the mental acuteness is ascribed not to a detective but to a criminal, tangentially engaged in the detection of other criminals. Here’s one straight line of descent for Hannibal Lecter: Professor Moriarty and Sherlock Holmes combining their talents.

“Like Dracula, Lecter drains his victims. After meeting him for the first time, Clarice Starling feels ‘suddenly empty, as though she had given blood’.”

Another bloodline passes through Bram Stoker’s Dracula. We learn in Hannibal that, like Dracula, Lecter is a central European aristocrat. His father, too, was a count and he believes himself to be descended from a 12th-century Tuscan named Bevisangue (blood-drinker). Like Dracula, Lecter drains his victims. After meeting him for the first time, Clarice Starling feels “suddenly empty, as though she had given blood”.

Anthony Hopkins as Dr Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs (dir. Jonathan Demme, 1991)
Anthony Hopkins as Dr Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs (dir. Jonathan Demme, 1991)

Lecter, like Dracula, has superhuman strength; he commands the beasts; and he lives in the night. Barney, the warder, tells Clarice on her second visit that Lecter is always awake at night, “even when his lights are off”. Many of his physical attributes resemble those of Dracula. “His cultured voice has a slight metallic rasp beneath it, possibly from disuse”, we are told in The Silence Of The Lambs. Dracula, says Stoker, speaks in a “harsh, metallic whisper”. Dracula’s eyes are red, Jonathan Harker realises when he first meets him, in the guise of a coachman. Later, when he sees Dracula with his female acolytes, he says: “The red light in them was lurid, as if the flames of hell-fire blazed behind them.” So too: “Dr Lecter’s eyes are maroon and they reflect the light in pinpoints of red. Sometimes the points of light seem to fly like sparks to his centre.”

Dracula has, of course, “peculiarly sharp white teeth”. Lecter’s teeth are noted but they’re pointedly not fangs, just “small white teeth”, although he too uses them to terrible effect – and, of course, consumes his victims. Dracula has a combination of “extraordinary pallor” and lips of “remarkable ruddiness”. Lecter, too, combines pallor and red lips: “The only colours in his cell were his hair and eyes and his red mouth, in a face so long out of the sun it leached into the surrounding whiteness…” There seems little doubt that Harris’s success in adding so dramatically to our stock of monsters drew on Bram Stoker’s earlier triumph in refining and perfecting the myth of the vampire.

Thomas Harris
Thomas Harris

In Hannibal, Harris tips the wink a little to Dracula. Much of the business of Dracula is taken up transporting the count’s boxes of soil from Transylvania to his properties in Essex and Piccadilly. Lecter’s home-making is more elaborate. Chapter 54 of Hannibal – the chapter which proclaims “Dr Lecter very much liked to shop” – begins: “It is an axiom of behavioural science that vampires are territorial, while cannibals range widely across the country. The nomadic existence held little appeal for Dr Lecter.” Setting aside the question of what behavioural science can say about imaginary monsters, it’s a nice nod to Lecter’s precursor. It may, however, just be a coincidence that among the insects Dracula sends in to his deranged acolyte Renfield in the asylum is “Acherontia atropos of the Sphinges – what we call the ‘Death’s-head Hawk Moth’,” the European version of the insect that alerts Clarice Starling to the identity of Jame Gumb, the second serial killer of The Silence Of The Lambs. [Read More]

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