By Thomas Harris

Delacorte. 486 pp. $27.95

"Over this odd world, this half the world that's dark now, I have to hunt a thing that lives on tears." Clarice Starling, heroine of Thomas Harris's "The Silence of the Lambs," was inspired to offer such poetic reflections after coming upon a curious but prosaic fact: There are moths whose sole diet consists of the tears of large land animals. She was an FBI agent-trainee then, on the trail of a serial killer named Buffalo Bill. At the beginning of "Hannibal," Harris's hotly anticipated follow-up, seven years have passed since Starling caught and killed her quarry. Now 32 and a veteran of stake-outs and surveillance vans, Starling has again managed to encounter a creature who, like the moths, gets his nourishment from others' distress. Mason Verger has other predilections, to be sure. But after a long, breathless day spent tormenting children, he enjoys sipping a martini made from their tears.

Already a confirmed sadist when he became the only victim known to survive an encounter with the notorious murderer Hannibal "the Cannibal" Lecter, Verger has spent millions preparing for the day when he can exact his horrifically specific revenge. He believes that day is near because his tormentor has been spotted in Italy, seven years after he escaped from custody. Verger, mutilated and disabled but with immense resources at his command, is a fascinating monster in the Harris tradition, complex and frightening, perhaps even more so than Lecter. While we are presented with enough of Lecter's childhood to at least suggest how and when he went wrong, Harris provides no such background for Verger: He apparently was born evil.

Lecter, whose hunger for human flesh is perhaps matched only by his brilliance, has been obsessed with Starling ever since he helped her find Buffalo Bill. He's kept tabs on her while living a gourmand's life in Florence. Starling, on the other hand, has been scrambling to stay afloat while her career careens toward ruin. "She survived most of her life in institutions, by respecting them and playing hard and well by the rules," Harris tells us. "She had always advanced, won the scholarship, made the team. Her failure to advance in the FBI after a brilliant start was a new and awful experience for her. She batted against the glass ceiling like a bee in a bottle."

The eventual collision of Verger, Lecter and Starling presents a tantalizing prospect for Harris's legion of fans, but the author, in no apparent hurry to get there, spends far too much time in Italy with a wayward, doomed policeman, apparently to drive home the idea that avarice leads to disaster. Other familiar Harris themes are present as well, most emphatically the idea that it's fruitless to desire order, to respect discipline, to seek justice in a universe ruled by a cruel and capricious God, a deity who punishes most brutally those who love Him most fervently. Lecter, with his collection of church-catastrophe memorabilia, internalized this early, and this is the knowledge he wants Starling to obtain. After seven years of intermittent sexual harassment, dead-end assignments and, finally, being set up to take the blame for a botched drug raid, she sees at last that "God wouldn't do a goddamned thing to help. That for fifty thousand Ibo infant lives, He would not bother to send rain."

Harris's philosophical arguments are most persuasive when he conveys them through the voices of his characters. While he is expert at capturing the accents and rhythms of actual speech, his own utterances as omniscient narrator are occasionally clumsy, pedantic and overwrought.

"Now that ceaseless exposure has calloused us to the lewd and the vulgar, it is instructive to see what still seems wicked to us," he writes. "What still slaps the clammy flab of our submissive consciousness hard enough to get our attention?" By telling--or, in this case, asking--instead of showing (which he does so well), Harris muffles the impact of a perfectly reasonable question.

He reliably provides the captivating biological arcana we've come to expect (this time sharing more than we ever thought we'd care to know about the breeding and care of man-eating pigs), and reveals how the confluence of careful investigative work and old-fashioned luck leads to the cracking of a case. He endows his killers' nearly supernatural abilities with it-could-happen credibility by showing them at work in a world frequently battered by unfathomable atrocities, among them war, famine and presidential scandal.

It is Harris's talent for contextualizing, along with his convincing construction of the psychological elements that motivate criminal behavior, that separates his work from run-of-the-mill police procedurals. Which makes it all the more disturbing that the last 50 or so pages of "Hannibal" are marred by a precipitous slide into high camp.

The ludicrous climax has at its center a bizarre dinner table tableau featuring Lecter, Starling and a nefarious bureaucrat. The conclusion violates everything we've come to understand about Harris's admirable heroine. To saddle her with the fate he has bestowed upon her in "Hannibal" is the ultimate discourtesy. And to portray Lecter as the catalyst is especially odd, since, as Hannibal told us in "The Silence of the Lambs," he finds discourtesy "unspeakably ugly."

Jabari Asim, a senior editor for Book World