Seven years after rescuing Jame Gumb's last victim, Clarice Starling witnesses her career crumble around her. A drug raid goes wrong and Starling kills an armed meth dealer in self defense: the dealer was carrying her own baby while shooting at Starling. Hannibal Lecter, who has been living in Florence, Italy, under an assumed name since escaping custody, sends her a letter of condolence and requests more information about her personal life. Desperate to catch Lecter, the FBI finds a use for Starling once again. She meets with Barney Matthews, former orderly of Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane. He tells her what Lecter said about her and that he said he would never go after him if he escaped.
Meanwhile, Mason Verger, a wealthy, sadistic pedophile who was left horribly disfigured after a "therapy session" with Lecter, plans to get revenge by feeding Lecter to wild boars, using Starling as bait. He is aided by corrupt Justice Department agent Paul Krendler, Starling's personal nemesis.
A disgraced Florentine detective, Rinaldo Pazzi, also pursues Lecter in the interests of collecting Verger's bounty on him. However, Lecter kills one of Pazzi's men and hangs Pazzi where his ancestor, Francesco de Pazzi, was hanged in 1478. Lecter waves at a camera, the footage of which is later seen by Verger. Lecter kills one of Verger's men and escapes to the United States, where he begins pursuing Starling.
The novel briefly touches upon Lecter's childhood, specifically the death of his beloved younger sister, Mischa. The two were orphaned during World War II, and a group of German deserters found them on their family estate and took them prisoner. Lecter watched, helpless, as the deserters killed and ate Mischa.
Barney briefly works for Verger, and gets acquainted with Verger's sister and bodyguard Margot, a lesbian bodybuilder whom Verger molested and raped as a child. Their friendship is briefly strained when he makes a pass at her, but they eventually reconcile, and Margot tells him that she stays in her hated brother's employment because she needs Mason's sperm to have a child with her partner, Judy.
Lecter is captured by Verger's men, and Starling pursues them, determined to bring Lecter in herself. One of Verger's men is able to shoot her full of tranquilizer as she releases Lecter. The wild boars break through the barricade separating them from Lecter, but they lose interest in their intended prey when they smell no fear on him, instead going after Verger's men. In the confusion, Lecter carries the unconscious Starling to safety, and escapes with her. At the same time, Margot forcibly obtains Mason's sperm by sodomizing him with a cattle prod, and then kills him by shoving his pet Moray eel down his throat. Lecter, who had briefly treated Margot after her brother abused her, has urged her to blame the murder on him, which she does by leaving one of his hairs at the scene.
Using a regimen of psychotropic drugs and behavioral therapy , Lecter attempts to brainwash Starling, hoping to make her believe she is Mischa, returned to life. She ultimately proves too strong, however, and tells him that Mischa will have to live on within him. Lecter captures Krendler and lobotomizes him, then he and Starling dine on Krendler's still-living prefrontal cortex sautéed with shallots, before killing him. The two then become lovers, and disappear together.
Three years later, on July 9, 2000, Barney and his girlfriend go to Buenos Aires. Barney, while in the opera, spots Lecter with Starling, and leaves immediately.
Novel Covers Edit
- The book was adapted in the 2001 film Hannibal by Ridley Scott, with Anthony Hopkins reprising the role as Hannibal Lecter and Julianne Moore as Clarice Starling. Gary Oldman portrayed the villain Mason Verger. The film differs slightly from the book, such as removing Margot Verger from the narrative, as well as amending the ending so Clarice isn't conditioned by Hannibal.
- Elements of the book is adapted in the first half of the third season of the television show Hannibal, which sees Hannibal Lecter hiding out in Florence. Will Graham (the protagonist from Red Dragon) along with Jack Crawford hunt down Hannibal, and Clarice Starling is completely absent from the narrative (due to rights reasons, therefore Will Graham occupies her role). Due to the series acting as a re-imagining, these events take place prior to that of Red Dragon.