Home | Reviews | Blog | Daily | Glossary | Orrin's Stuff | Email

Red Dragon ()

Brothers Judd Top 100 of the 20th Century: Novels

In a desperate attempt to deflect my wife's righteous indignation at the sheer number of books that I acquire, I rarely buy new books--assuming that as long as they are cheap, the quantity will be less annoying.  So I haven't read Thomas Harris' new book Hannibal, but I thought I'd return to one of his earlier efforts that folks may have missed.  Harris first rocketed up the bestseller lists with his excellent terrorism thriller Black Sunday.  His antihero Hannibal the Cannibal exploded into the public consciousness after Jonathan Demme's excellent movie version of Silence of the Lambs (1991) came out, with Anthony Hopkins brilliant creepy performance as Lecter.  And, of course, fans and Hollywood have had an anxious 11 year wait for Harris to finally publish a sequel.  But many people may not realize that Hannibal Lecter first appeared, albeit in a cameo role, in the novel Red Dragon and in Michael Mann's capable movie version, Manhunter (1986).  If you've missed this book, I urge you to try it; in many ways it is Harris's best work.

FBI Special Will Graham has retired to Sugar Loaf Key, FL with his new wife Molly and her son Willie.  Retired because of his nearly fatal encounter with a linoleum knife wielding Hannibal Lecter, whose capture he was responsible for, and because of the emotional troubles that have accompanied his ability to develop an almost extrasensory empathy for such killers, such that he has trouble purging their feelings from his own psyche.  His peaceful idyll is disrupted when his old boss, Jack Crawford, shows up and asks for his help in catching The Tooth Fairy, a serial killer who is notorious for the tooth marks he leaves and for dicing his victims with shards of broken mirrors.  Reluctantly agreeing to join the chase, Graham decides, in order to recapture the mindset that has made him so eerily effective in prior cases, to visit Hannibal Lecter in  the Chesapeake State Hospital for the Criminally Insane.  There the administrator,  Dr. Frederick Chilton, shares an anecdote about Hannibal that demonstrates just how horrible he is:

    "On the afternoon of July 8, 1976, Dr. Lecter complained of chest pain.  His restraints were
    removed in the examining room to make it easier to give him an electrocardiogram. One of his
    attendants left the room to smoke, and the other turned away for a second. The nurse was very
    quick and strong. She managed to save one of her eyes."

    "You may find this curious."  He took a strip of EKG tape from a drawer and unrolled it on his
    desk.   He traced the spiky line with his forefinger. "Here, he's resting on the examining table. Pulse
    seventy-two. Here, he grabs the nurse's head and pulls her down to him. Here, he is subdued
    by the attendant. He didn't resist, by the way, though the attendant dislocated his shoulder. Do you
    notice the strange thing? His pulse never got over eighty-five. Even when he tore out her tongue.

    I don't think we're any closer to understanding him than the day he came in.'

After tabloid reporter Freddie Lowndes splashes this visit all over the pages of The Tattler, the killer too contacts Lecter who urges him to attack Graham.  Thus begins a suspenseful, violent minuet as Graham develops increasing insight into the killer's methodology and psychoses, the killer plans his next kill (he's on a Lunar schedule) and Hannibal pulls strings from the dark background.  Harris provides fascinating detail on police procedure, he writes savvily about how the FBI uses the media and the inventiveness of the crimes he dreams up is genuinely disturbing.  But the most interesting part of the story is the delicate mental balance that Graham has to maintain in order to think like the killers but still remain sane.  And as Graham penetrates further into the killer's mind, Harris reveals more and more background about the Tooth Fairy, Francis Dolarhyde, who it turns out was a horribly misshapen baby, abandoned by his mother and raised by a demented grandmother, early on manifesting the now classic signs of the serial murder--torturing animals and the like.  This background and Will Graham's troubles dealing with the thought patterns he shares with Dolarhyde raise questions about what separates us from such men and whether there's a formula for creating such evil beings.  Is it really simply a matter of psychosexual abuse of young boys and, presto chango, you've created a serial killer?

In addition to this kind of portrayal of the psychotic as victim, our effort to deal with these creatures has resulted in a sizable batch of thrillers where the serial killer is portrayed as a nearly superhuman genius.  This flows from the same impulse that makes folks so willing to believe that assassinations are conspiracies.  It is extremely hard, as a society, to face the fact that nondescript shlubs like David Berkowitz and Lee Harvey Oswald and Richard Speck and James Earl Ray are really capable of causing so much social disruption.  Their crimes are so monumental that we want the killers to be equal in stature to the crimes.  The sad truth of the matter is that these monsters are, in fact, generally hapless losers.  They are not Lecterlike geniuses.

That said, Hannibal is still one of the great fictional creations of recent times, our age's version of Dracula or Frankenstein,  and Harris's imaginative story makes for a great, albeit unsettling, read with more food for thought than most novels of the type.


Grade: (A)


Thomas Harris Links:

    -AUTHOR PAGE: Thomas Harris (Random House)
    -WIKIPEDIA: Thomas Harris
    -FILMOGRAPHY: Thomas Harris (IMDB)
    -BIO: Thomas Harris (William Streibling, Mississippi Writers Page)
    -BIO: Biography of Thomas Harris (Teal Waterstrat (SHS), Mississippi Writers and Musicians)
    -GOOGLE BOOK: Black Sunday by Thomas Harris
    -WIKIPEDIA: Black Sunday
    -PROFILE: Creator of a monstrous hit: The reclusive author's acclaimed novels about the evil Hannibal Lecter have sold in their millions and inspired influential movies. A fourth book on the iconic villain's early days is due soon. But will it spoil the essential mystery? (Jason Cowley, 11/18/06, The Observer)
    -PROFILE: Twilit world of Hannibal's creator: While the fugitive Dr Lecter sips fine wine, his creator Thomas Harris opts out of book parties awash with cheap plonk. Duncan Campbell, 22 May 1999,
    -PROFILE: Eleven-year wait has been worth it for every Harris fan: Writing so vivid you can see the scenes - for £16.99 rather than £60m (Mark Lawson, 8 June 1999,
-REVIEW ESSAY: SUNDAY MORNIN’ COMIN’ DOWN: ON THE 1975 THOMAS HARRIS NOVEL, BLACK SUNDAY, AND ITS UNDERRATED ADAPTATION: The test screenings of Black Sunday enthralled its early viewers, but the film was eclipsed by the release of Star Wars. (DAVID JAMES KEATON, 1/31/23, CrimeReads)
    -ESSAY: Chewing on Hannibal (Dwight Garner, 12/24/06, NY Times Book Review)
    -ESSAY: The Cannibal Who Evolved Into a Stereotype (ELVIS MITCHELL, February 19, 2001, NY Times)
-ARCHIVES: Thomas Harris (NY Times Book Review)
    -ARCHIVES: Thomas Harris (The Guardian)
    -REVIEW: of Red Dragon by Thomas Harris (Thomas Fleming, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Red Dragon (Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris (Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of Hannibal by Thomas Harris (Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of Hannibal (Bookreporter)
    -REVIEW: of Hannibal (John Lanchester, London Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of Hannibal Rising by Thomas Harris (Steven Poole, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW: of Hannibal Rising (Peter Guttridge, The Observer)
    -REVIEW: of Hannibal Rising (Terrence Rafferty, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of Hannibal Rising (Janet Maslin, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of Hannibal Rising (Motoko Rich, NY Times)
    -INFO: Black Sunday (1977) (IMDB)
    -REVIEW: of Black Sunday (Chris Robe, PopMatters)
    -REVIEW: of Black Sunday (Criminal Element)
    -REVIEW: of Black Sunday (Vincent Canby, NY Times)

Book-related and General Links:
    -Official Thomas Harris Website (Random House)
    -Mississippi Writers Page: Thomas Harris
    -THOMAS HARRIS PROFILE (Joe's Detective Pages)
    -REVIEW: (Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of Red Dragon HUNTING MONSTERS  (Thomas Fleming, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Silence of the Lambs The Return of Hannibal the Cannibal (CHRISTOPHER LEHMANN-HAUPT, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of Hannibal Hannibal the Cannibal (Stephen King, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Hannibal,  Lecter Returns, and One of His Victims Is Out for Revenge (CHRISTOPHER LEHMANN-HAUPT, NY Times)
    -Annotations to  Thomas Harris' The Silence of the Lambs
    -PROFILE: Is This Why Ted Bundy Became a Murderer?: Dr. Dorothy Lewis, a psychiatrist and serial-killer expert, explores a provocative thesis in Alex Gibney’s new documentary Crazy, Not Insane. (JULIE MILLER, NOVEMBER 20, 2020, Vanity Fair)

Other recommended books by Thomas Harris:
    -Black Sunday (1975)
    -The Silence of the Lambs (1988)