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.