Red Dragon, by Thomas Harris


As it says on the cover of my copy of the book: “The terrifying classic that introduced Hannibal Lector.” Yes, Dr. Lector is the kind of doctor that will give you nightmares. If you live long enough to have any, that is. And what’s amazing is Lector just “popped up” out of nowhere when Harris was writing this story. That’s got to be both fortunate for the author (because Lector made Harris rich and famous), and very, very chilling. It almost makes me believe in the supernatural power of … what? The power of evil fictional characters to summon a writer to tell their story? Gah! Creepy. Let’s leave Lector for a bit, since this is not really his story anyway. He’s only a guest here.

The real star is the Red Dragon, or as the media calls him, The Tooth Fairy.

Francis Dolarhyde, the Red Dragon’s alter ego, is a very disturbed boy. Plagued with both a harelip and a sadistic grandmother, Francis never has a chance. I believe this is one of the first serial killer thrillers based on then-current FBI knowledge and techniques. Harris actually had to visit the FBI to do research for this book, so it was all pretty damned scary when this was published in 1981.

So, I loved the Red Dragon as a killer – he was twisted, smart, and poetic. That whole “dancing naked in the moonlight while covered in your victims’ blood” thing is just beautiful. And just how crazy do you have to be to track down your soul/nemesis in the Brooklyn Museum, and then, instead of admiring it, or even stealing it, you eat it!

Let’s not forget, either, the horrible, horrible fate the Dragon inflicts on poor, hardworking, tabloid reporter Freddy Lounds – he bites off Freddy’s lips and lights him on fire, sending Lounds’ blazing wheelchair down the hill towards his newspaper’s building. Ah, they don’t make serial killers like that anymore, do they?

Will Graham, the FBI profiler, was very good too. This earliest version of what’s become by this time an almost psychic character in our culture, Graham doesn’t make giant leaps of intuition when considering the serial killer. Instead, he suffers “profiler’s block” and bumbles and stumbles around, like a blind man in a strange room. This makes him both more realistic and sympathetic. Nevertheless, Graham does have something special when it comes to figuring these guys out. I see it as mostly a willingness to quit “focusing” on the killer, and to just daydream about him a little. That’s how he realizes that the killer already knows what he’s going to encounter at each scene, because he’s already seen it! Eureka.

Hang onto your butts, people, because I can’t think of a single, damned thing to complain about in this novel. It’s well-written (and if there were any POV shifts in there, I never noticed them), the characters are awesome, and the science feels realistic and plausible. I even liked the movie version, “Manhunter”. Haven’t seen the remake yet, but I hear it’s also good.

So, even though many people only know of this book because it included the first appearance of Doctor Cannibal Lector, there was a LOT more good stuff going on in there. Read it for Lector, sure, but savor the rest of it too. It really is very tasty.

3 thoughts on “Red Dragon, by Thomas Harris”

  1. Oh, Gwen, you have a way of saying what I mean when I don’t say what I mean! Everything you said, YES! All of the characters were so paper thin, that they could have easily swapped places with a few well placed words.


  2. Gosh, you’re making me feel bad for pointing out a few minor things I didn’t care for. I liked the book too. Compared to The Sculptor, Will Graham was so real he could walk off the page and into life. I just wanted to know more about him, I wanted to hear about his past and feel more for him. There were a few subtle POV shifts that threw me off, but I agree, they weren’t terrible.
    I love Lector and totally agree with you that there must have been some magic there because even in that small, quick scene, Lector is so creepy and real that he earns as much fear as the Dragon himself.
    I have seen both versions of the movie and think they were both well done. Ralph Fiennes as Dolarhyde is just so creeptastic, you have to see it.


  3. I also appreciated Graham’s approach toward solving these murders. It was something I hadn’t read before, so it automatically drew me in. I am so tired of sleuths or otherwise having that “revelation” at the end that’s fits so well together and saves their asses (read: Cathy in The Sculptor.) One of my favorite scenes was when Graham is analyzing the home videos and Crawford tries to tell him something, and Graham just growls, “Don’t talk to me!” I’d be lying if I said I’ve never thought those particular thoughts before.

    The only thing that definitely did bother me were the POV shifts. Though, I’m not sure what you mean when you say you didn’t notice them. There were at least seven different points-of-view. Are you referring to the head-hopping? That was much more subtle and I believe only occurred a few times. But, again, I noticed it because I didn’t like it. It might just go down to what you, as a reader, feel is forgivable and what is not.


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