Review: Red Dragon by Thomas Harris

red dragon4 out of 5 stars

This is the second time reading this book, and though I dimly remember it, I just recently saw The Manhunter movie. Now all my memories are smooshed up, and I don’t remember what the movie did or didn’t incorporate. I wrote a little in my previous post about reading Red Dragon, and here is my review.

I saw The Silence of the Lambs in the theater when it came out, and it effed me up. Like for serious. I didn’t sleep for a month. Being a glutton for punishment, I went and read the book. Then I read Red Dragon. I don’t think I slept for another month. This book is strangely genred. It’s a mystery/thriller type. What my sister calls “murder and mayhem” but the horrific nature of these books has always made people think of them as horror. And this is pretty damn horrific. If you are at all squeamish, I’d stay the hell away from the all the Hannibal books.

In case you didn’t know, this is the first book where Hannibal Lecter appears. However, he isn’t even the main character. The main character is Will Graham, a retired forensics specialist (at least I think that is what he calls himself). He retired from the FBI behavioral profile unit after run ins with Hannibal Lecter and having to shoot-to-kill another serial killer, Garret Jacob Hobbes. But what’s past is prologue! Now he lives on a small island with his wife and her child, and fixes boats. Then a series of grisly murders stymies his old forensics crew, and leads former boss Jack Crawford to ask him to come back and help him catch the killer.

When Jack goes to Will, the Tooth Fairy has struck twice, both times during a full moon. They can’t risk waiting another lunar cycle to do something proactive. So Jack asks Will to try and look at the case and see if he can help out. The murders are horrendous. Entire families murdered and mysterious blood smears in the house suggest the bodies were moved. The woman always suffers the worst mutilation. They call him the Tooth Fairy because he bites the woman so horribly.

The first portion of the book is very police procedural. We get some background on Will and learn that he has a special way of looking at evidence and extrapolating how the killer thinks, then using that to catch him. We follow Will and the crew, including Professor Bloom, a psychiatrist who helps guide them in making the profile on the killer, various police officers in the different jurisdictions (the vast majority of these people I don’t remember or care about, they have no character development),  and then, hitting a wall and not understanding the man they are searching for, Will decides he has to talk to Hannibal Lecter. It’s one of the most intense scenes in thriller history, and the set up for a legendary character. It’s amazing that a minor, side character in a thriller has become so iconic. He’s absolutely heartless. He just fucks with everyone and everything. Including the Dragon. Fun times. Fun sick times. For psychopaths.

Like Will, Lector can see into people’s heads. He’s both a psychiatrist and a psychopath. He knows what buttons to push to elicit the worst response, and he uses this on everyone, from the Dragon to Will to the director of the hospital he’s in. He’s fascinating. From the very first book, people wanted more Lector. (Sadly with the later books, there is the Glee/Dr. Who effect: he gave the people what they wanted and they weren’t happy about it.)

Throughout the book we have seen the Tooth Fairy, Francis Dolarhyde. We watch him as he goes to work. We watch him watching movies on the couch. We watch him lift weights. But about halfway through the book, maybe even a little farther, we enter into Dolarhyde’s mind and learn his backstory. First, the teeth thing. He’s obsessed with biting because he was born with a cleft palate. His mother abandons him and he’s left to the mercy of the county. His mother has no idea what to do because she was abandoned by her husband and thrown out of her own mother’s house because she ran off with an Irishman. In a roundabout way, his grandmother finds out about the boy and goes to collect him. She then makes his mother pay for what she’s done. Let’s just say it’s no wonder Dolarhyde becomes a serial killer. And he HATES the whole “Tooth Fairy” thing. He sees himself as the Red Dragon. The dragon is the one in the William Blake paintings – it’s very confusing which one, either the Red Dragon and the Woman clothed in the sun or with the sun – there are two, and Harris may have confused them, or it might be that the museum had it labelled wrong in its literature. Regardless, you get the idea. There is this horrific mandragon thing that he sees himself as becoming. It’s pretty sick, like I said, psychopath games. But we also see Dolarhyde at work, as a normal person, and there is a love interest. A woman who might help him hold the dragon at bay.

The plot is great. Harris is great at showing us just what we need to see, and the way that he lays out the POV, he doesn’t have to show us everything and then BAM!! INCITING INCIDENT! And you’re not even mad at him. Just when you think everything is safe and there’s nothing to worry about…. oh no it’s not.

I enjoy the story, but the writing can be really clunky, especially the dialog. Then he’d bust out some gorgeous bit of description, like “Chicago smelled like a spent skyrocket in the hot afternoon.” I mean, look at you, Harris. And yes, there is a lot of great stuff in this book for fans of the Hannibal series. As I said in a previous post, I am re-reading the series because my favorite actor is going to play Francis Dolarhyde in the third season. They have really expanded on the little bits of this novel, and I’m sure the other, later ones as well. I’m definitely excited to continue reading this series. I’ve got The Silence of the Lambs on my desk right now, and I will post a review when I’m done with it.

Happy Reading, everybody!


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