“Red Dragon” by Thomas Harris

Hannibal Lecter, or ‘Hannibal the Cannibal’, remains one of the most iconic antagonists in this modern era. While this is mainly due to Anthony Hopkins’ truly incredible portrayal of him in the film adaptation of ‘Silence of the Lambs’, he is also a genuinely fascinating character to read about. Red Dragon is the novel that ‘unleashed the beast’, so to speak, bringing him to life but, sadly, not into the foreground.

The plot:
Set in the early 80s, a serial killer is on the rampage, terrorising middle class families and murdering them brutally in their sleep. Nicknamed ‘The Tooth Fairy’, he has a tendency to leave bite marks on the corpses of his victims. The FBI calls in the help of Will Graham, a naturally gifted behavioural analyst, to aid them in catching the killer. Graham quit the service having caught one Hannibal Lecter, who had almost killed him in the process. As it happens, their paths were destined to cross again.

It is blatantly obvious that Thomas Harris is an author that now knows what his readers want. He struck gold with the character of Lecter, presenting to us a figure who could continue to remain a delightful mystery despite intense scrutiny from his readers. For this reason, his past three books have all focused on the escapades of the charming sociopath.

However, this is achieved through trial and error, as Lecter does not feature as prominently here as you might think. He is very much a side character, and Harris clearly hasn’t realised his full potential as a popular anti-hero just yet.  Scenes in which he does feature are well written and lend themselves to the narrative well. However they lack the raw power necessary to make his presence so ominous that it pervades the entire novel.

Will Graham, as a character, functions well enough to keep the story going. His naturally instinctive urge to catch the killer is constantly battling with his sore desire to simply walk away from the case and live a normal life. His relationship with his wife and stepson adds a personal touch to the narrative, which is essential to hold the reader’s interest. The problem is that, while Graham has an interesting personality, he isn’t as likeable as he should be. Harris addresses this, noting that Graham isn’t supposed to be likeable, and this is an integral and essential part of his character. Yet, this is damaging to the overall story, as it is so difficult to care for a protagonist whom you feel so indifferent about.

The ‘Tooth Fairy’ himself is broken from the same lethargic mould. A great deal of the novel is read from his perspective, and this makes for engaging reading. His fractured mind makes him an unpredictable character, lapsing between utter passivity and child-like fury in a second. His relationship with a blind co-worker actually serves as one of the books major highlights and helps to pass him off as a somewhat sympathetic character. However, feelings towards him will likely remain largely indifferent, like Graham, thus making their conflict interesting, but not thoroughly engaging.

Red Dragon is an interesting book in theory, suitably grim and often quite clever. However, it suffers from a bland line-up of characters, most of whom you’ll care little about, if at all. It has its moments in which it breaks this trend, most notably at points in which Lecter himself features. Luckily, these lapses in the mediocrity occur often enough that you will want to read it til the end. Ultimately anti-climatic, but not an altogether complete waste of time.

Awful Rating: 6/10

Reach behind you Will Graham…and feel for the small…knobs on the top of your pelvis. Feel your spine between them…that is the precise spot…where the Dragon will snap your spine.” – Tape Recording

Shamelessly Awful Facts:

  • I was quite upset to discover that Red Dragon had a distinct lack of actual dragons in it. Not since seeing the film Naked Lunch was I so upset about a misleading title.
  • Red Dragon was adapted for the silver screen twice, first by Michael Mann under the title Manhunter in 1986, and again under its original title by Brett Ratner in 2002. While the latter has the advantage of an all-star cast, Anthony Hopkins in particular, Manhunter remains an underrated gem, that exceeds the quality of the book itself.
Published in: on November 12, 2011 at 12:03 am  Leave a Comment  
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