Red Dragon by Thomas Harris

A review of the crime thriller horror novel Red Dragon by Thomas Harris.

Some characters surpass the constraints of their books; becoming more through reputation than that which they were originally written. To do this takes a great amount of skill and is a rarity amongst novels. With Red Dragon, Thomas Harris introduces not only the chillingly-realised ‘Tooth Fairy’ killer, but also the far superior Hannibal ‘the Cannibal’ Lector. Whilst the Tooth Fairy is a horrific monster, Lector is something more, and has grown in popular culture to become much greater than the sum of his parts in this, his first appearance.

The story proper centres around Will Graham, a special investigator for the FBI brought in to profile and hunt a serial killer. His history with Lector is alluded to, yet never explicitly shown, although it is clear that he was severely injured by Hannibal when he finally caught him. Graham has a strong sense of empathy with others, allowing him to see through the eyes of a killer and put himself in their place.

In retrospect, and taking Harris’ future oeuvre into account, Lector only makes a few cameo appearances. As an initial read, however, this was his conception. He seems bent on convincing Graham that they share a common trait – that of a psychopath. He also jumps off the page, and in true less-is-more style, his brief scenes hold more lasting impact than the entirety of the Tooth Fairy’s arc.

The Tooth Fairy, as it turns out, thinks of himself as the titular Red Dragon. He is obsessed with a William Blake painting (erroneously described as one with the title of another by Harris) and believes he is changing, sacrificing families to the beast on his back. The exploration of his psyche is interesting and brutal, yet the convenient flashback to his childhood trauma – casting him in an almost sympathetic light as a victim – feels a little trite. A shame, as it is the only fault in an otherwise tight and thrilling crime horror.

Twice this book has been adapted for film, and once as part of the Hannibal TV series, yet always the ending is changed. Harris’ original finale (Mild spoilers ahead!) is both victorious and tragic, and less about the archetypal hero than the psychological scarring left by the unfolding events.

Many characters continue on within the Lector series, not least Hannibal himself. The immediate follow-up – The Silence of the Lambs – is a masterpiece, whilst the conclusion to the trilogy – Hannibal – is more of a veer into different territory, and often less-favourably reviewed. There is also a prequel – Hannibal Rising – yet it is almost superfluous. Lector shines throughout, but it is Will Graham, not Hannibal, that is the star of this novel. It is as much an examination of FBI forensic procedure in the early 80s as it is a study of a tortured investigator, and as much a crime novel as a terrifying horror story. The characters, acts, thoughts, and themes are all macabre, and that is exactly how they should be.

Harris received much praise from other authors upon the publication of this novel, and it is clear to see why. It still holds up as a powerful and fast-paced novel, gripping from the first page. The stylistic qualities of the writing should not be overlooked, with Harris experimenting in tone and timbre. More than the Red Dragon’s evolution, this was Harris’ Becoming. Here, throughout this novel, he changes from a crime writer to a master storyteller. It truly is magnificent to behold.

Originally from Thanet, J A DuMairier enjoys writing and long walks in the country.

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