Monday, March 25, 2013

Book Review: Red Dragon by Thomas Harris

Red Dragon
RED DRAGON by Thomas Harris - Introduction of Hannibal Lecter - Cover Image
By Thomas Harris

It has been 31 years since Thomas Harris introduced us to the character of Hannibal Lecter in the novel Red Dragon. 31 years. I am only a few short years older than this book.

It's amazing how well it holds up. Time has been kinder to Red Dragon than it has been to me.

For the uninitiated: Will Graham is a retired FBI profiler called back into the fold to assist in capturing the Tooth Fairy, a brutal serial killer with an oral fixation who targets families. The Tooth Fairy operates with the phases of the moon, so Graham and the FBI have a limited amount of time to find him before he kills again.

Hoping to gather some insight into such a deranged mind, Graham stoops to interviewing Hannibal "The Cannibal" Lecter, the brilliant and elegant serial killer that he had captured--and nearly been killed by--years before. The Tooth Fairy has a similar idea and strikes up a correspondence with Lecter, one that the FBI believes they can exploit to aid in their investigation.

Funny thing about depraved psychopaths: they don't like to be exploited.

I was, of course, familiar with the story from exposure to the 1986 film Manhunter and 2002's Red Dragon, so when I finally sat down to read the book, I was afraid that I would be too familiar with it. That knowing the story would prevent me from being as interested in it as I would have been otherwise.

My fears were unjustified. I was reeled in immediately, and plowed through this novel in two marathon sessions. I probably would have done it in one, but real jobs have a terrible way of messing everything up. From page one, I was hooked. Harris writes clearly and succinctly, giving equal measure to the interior world of his characters and the outside world that they walk through.

Graham is a damaged character, scarred both physically and emotionally by his constant exposure to evil. The trope of Retired Agent With An Almost Supernatural Ability To Connect With The Killer is seen often these days (most recently Kevin Bacon's character in TV's The Following), but rarely is it done with as much intimate characterization or sensitivity as it is done here.

Hannibal Lecter is such an iconic character that very little needs to be said of him. He's got the mind of a super-villain, and the cool and calm demeanor of an old spiritualist. He's powerful and unflappable, even when behind bars. His role here is pretty small, but it was enough to make a lasting impression, and he would return for three more entries in the franchise.

The Tooth Fairy (or The Great Red Dragon, take your pick) is a conflicted soul who has grown tired of the abuse and disrespect heaped upon him and is looking to become something more, trying to reinvent himself as a mythical beast connected to the arcane mind of William Blake. He is intimidating and frightening in a way completely opposite of Hannibal Lecter. Lecter will outwit you, outlast you, and then eat you. The Dragon will hunt you, overpower you, chew you up and then spit you out. But both end results are the same.

Despite the fact that this takes place in 1980, it is almost timeless. If not for a few noticeable details, it very well could take place today. Nobody has a cellphone, of course--a detail you don't even think about until later--and the home movies of the victims (which play such a large part in the story) are shot on film, requiring they be sent off for development and viewed on a projector. But beyond those instances, there is nothing here that shouts THE 'EIGHTIES, which is refreshing. Being explicitly dated can sometimes hamper the enjoyment.

I'm greatly looking forward to reading the rest of the series, and I'm already planning a day of event viewing where I watch the films in chronological order: Hannibal Rising, Red Dragon, Silence of the Lambs, and Hannibal.

And for those wondering which adaptation of this book that I enjoyed more, let's just put it this way: From start to finish of this book, I pictured Edward Norton as Graham.

Read it!


  1. When I began reading SILENCE a couple years ago I too was afraid I'd be over-familiar with the story and characters. Not the case! Wow is SILENCE an amazing novel and anyone who loves the film should read it. I've been planning on revisiting RED DRAGON as well; I first read it over 10 years ago, awhile before the remake came out - in my head I saw William Petersen, of course - and liked it much much better than MANHUNTER (which I think is rather overrated).

  2. I must've read this book 7 or 8 times when I was a youngster, and I always loved it. For me, neither of the film versions really did the character of Dolarhyde/Red Dragon/Tooth Fairy justice. He was a monster, sure, but a very tortured monster, and I think you can only really appreciate the depth of his character in the book.

  3. Will: It has been years since I have seen MANHUNTER, but I remember being disappointed in it. It's available to stream on Netflix, so I may be revisiting it soon.

    J-Bro: You're probably right. It's much more difficult to capture complex characters on film than on the written page, especially when they're only around for one story. Lecter is appropriately complex onscreen, but that's because he evolved over a series of four films--but he's even more complex in the books. Still an enigma, though.

    Thanks for stopping by, fellas!

  4. Maybe it's because I've seen MANHUNTER so many times that when I finally read RED DRAGON, I imagined William Petersen as Graham. To me, Norton was all wrong for the role... at least looks-wise but even beyond that I felt he failed to capture or convey the character's intensity. Should be interesting to see how the TV show does.


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