Three years after quitting his job as an FBI profiler, Will Graham is brought out of his early retirement in Florida thanks to a new mass murderer called Tooth Fairy who massacres entire families in one go. His ex-boss Jack Crawford is stuck and knows Graham is the solution to the stalled investigation: Graham has an innate ability—some might call it a psychic ability—to empathise with the worst kinds of killers. It nearly killed him last time, when famous cannibal Hannibal Lecter almost finished him off, but will Will be able to overcome his past demons and stop the Tooth Fairy from claiming another innocent family?
Red Dragon is a 1981 novel by Thomas Harris and chronologically the first book in the series that first introduced the world to Dr. Hannibal Lecter, before the second book Silence of the Lambs was made into the classic film with Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster. After having watched and enjoyed all the movies and the TV show Hannibal when it was in its prime, I finally decided that 2021 was going to be the year I would finally read the book series. And what a perfect book to start with!
I haven’t watched the Red Dragon movie in years, so I only knew a bunch of the key details and couldn’t remember how it ended, so reading Red Dragon both reminded me of how much I enjoyed the Edward Norton movie way back when, and also stood on its own two feet. Of course, being a book set in 1980, there are a lot of lines that read a bit awkwardly nowadays; on page 234, the serial killer antagonist is in conversation with his blind co-worker and somewhat love interest, when she says that her workplace “had to shape up their employment practices to keep this Defense contract. They managed to pack six women, two blacks, two chicanos, an oriental, a paraplegic, and me into a total of eight hirings. We all count in at least two categories, you see”. Both very ’80s and very ’20s in one neat package. But it didn’t bother me too much. We shouldn’t expect old books to match modern sensibilities, and if anything, reading about all the dated technologies and goings-on of the characters made for an interesting comparison. Fresh off the back of reading Edward Snowden’s Permanent Record last week, I realised the plot of Red Dragon would be over in a snap if it was set in the modern day. The antagonist Francis Dolarhyde works at a film processing company, which has a major role throughout the entire plot. There is a subplot involving trashy gossip rag reporter Freddy Lounds, and the FBI deducing the Tooth Fairy/Dragon’s location by which newsstand he read Lounds’s trash rag Tattler from. Security cameras are more prominent and would have screwed Dolarhyde over somewhat. He is able to escape a major Brooklyn art museum without any real difficulty. Dolarhyde is moulded into a serial killer by events that would be less inclined to happen. Even the casual references, such as page 81 when Dolarhyde cuts small pieces of asbestos cloth from an ironing-board cover to stuff into his ears.
Perhaps it is because of Will Graham’s heightened empathy, but while reading Red Dragon, it is easy to flit between vile hatred and repulsion to sadness and understanding over the main antagonist Francis Dolarhyde. While his crimes are disgustingly brutal—the Dragon finds a middle-class family, kills their pet, and the next night after they sleep, breaks into their house, kills the husband, then the three children, then the wife, all the while recording the wife so he can later splice it with film footage that he can thrill himself with. It is very explicit and specific, and even though I recalled a lot of the plot from the movie, I still read this book with intrigue, forgoing YouTube binges to sit back and read pages and pages and pages. Despite his behaviour, one comes to realise Dolarhyde is a victim of circumstance. Born with a cleft palate and abandoned by his mother, he is emotionally abused by his grandmother—she used his appearance to ruin her son-in-law’s attempts to get into politics. This is muffled by the last couple chapters, when Red Dragon does a classic horror movie trope, but it is still an enjoyable ending, with Graham coming to some uncomfortable truths.
I really did like Will Graham as a protagonist, as much as I did in the previous incarnations of the film adaptation and the TV series. He isn’t just your typical rough, bitter, brink-of-retirement detective, and isn’t afraid to show that men can and do have emotions. Graham’s supposed extreme empathy doesn’t particularly appear like he has the amazing psychic ability some of the experts like Dr. Bloom and others think; the book places a lot of focus on his heightened skills, but he’s really just someone who’s in touch with his emotions, and doesn’t think like a naive numpty in the YouTube comments section of a true crime video saying, “hburr durur I don’t understand why someone would do something like that”.
Graham’s interactions with Dr. Lecter were less than I expected, but it makes sense since Lecter is a side character who developed into a whole story of his own. In essence, Red Dragon is a prequel for the future of the Lecter mythos, and I honestly wish Will would have more of a presence in future books, which apparently he doesn’t, but who knows; maybe in the future books with Clarice Starling I will love her just as much as Graham. Graham is a damaged and compelling hero, whose ability to imagine and empathise with killers has him being used by others (like Crawford) to further their own ends (in Crawford’s case, to stop a mass killer) and unable to be understood by others. Even his wife Molly seems to care little to understand him beyond the basic platitudes, and most seem to be of the old-school belief that he should shut up his past trauma with Dr. Lecter and just move on. While behavioural science wasn’t up to that level in the early ’80s—everybody did just assume someone with obvious PTSD like Graham could just forget and move on—Thomas Harris is prescient in his view of Graham’s situation. Graham and Dolarhyde are really just two sides to the same coin, and if you came into this book review expecting more Dr. Lecter, it’s probably best to wait for the rest of the series. I did enjoy the dynamic, the switch between the lives of Dolarhyde and Graham, and it’s what kept me reading and reading until sadly there were no more pages left.
Red Dragon by Thomas Harris is a compelling, interesting start to a series that inspired a lot of popular fiction, and I wasn’t disappointed. I enjoyed the characters of Will Graham and Francis Dolarhyde equally; none were blank slates and they even though one was the protagonist and the other the antagonist, I looked forward to reading each and every chapter. It was a nice fiction read after a heavy political current affairs nonfiction, and I’m definitely going to continue the series. If you’re looking for Hannibal Lecter, you’ll be disappointed, ’cause he doesn’t appear much, but when he does, his presence takes up the page. There is a commentary on physical imperfections and mental health and how society at the time—the late ’70s/early ’80s—viewed those who don’t fit in with the regular mould. While the FBI should have been clued in on the Tooth Fairy/Red Dragon’s murders a lot quicker than they were—they didn’t really need Will Graham’s abilities to make some of the connections—I still found myself reading intently for hours on end, for the days until I reached the final page. The ending both packed a punch with a surprising plot twist that will make you think about the nature of empathy and human behaviour. Will Graham thinks he’s a lot more like the antagonist than he realises, but is he really?