J A Garrett

Curiously nerdy posts.

Red Dragon: Revisiting a classic.

Happy Friday! Today I’m doing something unusual for me. I’m reviewing a classic novel, instead of my usual random whims.

I chose to read Red Dragon by Thomas Harris in part because I’m such a fan of the Hannibal tv show going on right now. I’d read most of Harris’ work back in the late 90s, when Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal (the movie) were crazy popular. But that was a long time ago, and I wanted to be fresh on the source material. So I decided to re-read Red Dragon, in particular. I’ll probably do the same with Silence of the Lambs at some point.

The blurb reads like this:

In the realm of psychological suspense, Thomas Harris stands alone. Exploring both the nature of human evil and the nerve-racking anatomy of a forensic investigation, Harris unleashes a frightening vision of the dark side of our well-lighted world. In this extraordinary novel, which preceded The Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal, Harris introduced the unforgettable character Dr. Hannibal Lecter. And in it, Will Graham—the FBI man who hunted Lecter down—risks his sanity and his life to duel a killer called the…Red Dragon.

What I liked:

The story. Well, duh. This is kind of a classic in a genre I happen to really enjoy. Naturally I liked the story. It’s a dark, twisting journey that questions the sanity of man, and that’s when you’re in Will’s POV.

It starts off sort of cliche-ish with Will Graham coming out of retirement to help with a case only he can likely solve… but it gets much better from there.  Usually when a book starts like that, it feels kind of pandering to the main character… you sort of roll your eyes and say Sure, yeah. Naturally they’re the only ones that can solve this. Then when we see what the case actually is, you realize that maybe it’s not as much hyberbole as you thought. I’ve heard it said before that if you decided you wanted to kill someone, hypothetically, you could stand a good chance of getting away with it… if you murdered someone seemingly completely random, in another part of the country, that you had no personal ties to. Most murders are crimes of passion, after all, which is why real psychopaths are so difficult to catch. This book documents that hypothetical, in a way.

The best part, though, is how nothing is given or assumed in the book. There is no brilliant detective that can figure out everything before you can. Given the way the book is built, of course you know who the killer is long before our heroes do. But that affords you the ability to see that there are no shortcuts taken. It’s like Harris is that magician doing a classic card trick, except with no sleeves. You know he’s not taking the easy way out, and that affords you the ability to really appreciate what he does with the story.

On that note, how Graham figures out the identity of the Dragon is so satisfying when he puts the pieces together because of this. It’s completely plausible, and it’s not because Will is a genius. It’s because he went over every possible piece of information tirelessly for weeks, over and over again until he caught a small detail that made everything click into place. I’m not in law enforcement, but it seems to me a more realistic view of how criminals are actually caught.

And this book also has a few really great twists. Not going to spoil them, obviously, but they are nearly impossible to see coming. You really have to feel for Will. He wins, but yet he doesn’t.

The attention to detail. What sets Harris’ novels apart from many in the suspense/crime drama genre is the attention to detail. Everything is described in painstaking detail, from the grisly murders themselves, to the crime lab procedures used, to even the home movies of the families victimized by the Tooth Fairy/Red Dragon.

There’s a point where they’re obsessing over a wheelchair… and you wonder why a wheelchair matters so much, and then you realize that if cops were in the same position in real life, they’d be doing the exact same thing. They wouldn’t magically know what it means. They’d pore over every last inch for the tiniest of clues. Because sometimes, that’s all you can get.

Francis Dolarhyde. The best parts of the book, to me at least, were the parts where you’re in the POV of the Dragon himself. It gives you a sense of how clever he really is, while also giving you insight to how insane he really is. One of my actual favorite parts is where we’re given a look into his life growing up as a child, and you gradually understand where his insanity began. The part where his grandmother asks him for his name really got me, in particular.

He seems almost inhuman when you read about him. Then you get hints that maybe he wants to be different, maybe he doesn’t want to murder anyone anymore… and then the carpet gets pulled out from underneath you. It’s quite something when a POV character can fool even the reader.

What I didn’t like:

Hannibal Lecter. Now, hear me out. Hannibal Lecter is an amazing character. But I do think it’s silly that this book is marketed as it is. Look at the cover. “Introduced Hannibal Lecter.” If you’re looking for a novel with the character front and center, you’re much better off reading Hannibal or Hannibal Rising. Incidentally, those two books are vastly inferior to this one. I have to give credit to Harris here again: whenever I create a character I think is amazing, it’s incredibly tempting to just go nuts and only want to write that character. It must’ve taken an incredible amount of restraint to only use the character when he actually needed him for the story.

But yes, Dr. Lecter only appears in a grand total of 3 chapters in the book, and 3 more in the form of letters. It’s true that his impact on the outcome of the novel (particularly the end) is immense, but his actual presence is very small. Which is fine, but it just feels like false advertisement to act like you’re getting a Hannibal novel when you read this.

It’s more like a cameo, really.

The verdict:

This is probably one of the best psychological thrillers ever written. If you like the genre, read this book. Even if it doesn’t have a ton of the rock star-level character Harris is known for, it’s still very much worth your time and attention.



One comment on “Red Dragon: Revisiting a classic.

  1. J.T. Carlton
    June 26, 2015

    Fantastic review of an extraordinary masterpiece. Thank you for sharing!

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This entry was posted on June 26, 2015 by in Book recommendations, Books, Literacy, Reviews and tagged , , , , , , .
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