Of course, now Hannibal Lecter is a household name, and Hopkins' improvised teeth sucking noise is as easily recognizable as "Holy Shit Batman!" Hell, in High School I actually played "Hannibal Lektor" in Drama Class for a full year... and High School wasn't recent, Kemosabe! Yep, I fell for The Silence of the Lambs, and read (and adapted) the book faster than you can shout "Creative License". Then came Hannibal, and yeah, just like the Hopkins movies, I got to Red Dragon last... but homey, it's not least!
Nope, Red Dragon isn't about Hannibal "The Cannibal" Lecter, who had already been captured and institutionalized for his tasty crimes before the events of this story. Red Dragon is about FBI Profiler Will Graham, the guy who nabbed the Cannibal, being called in on the manhunt for a brand new Serial Killer known as "The Tooth Fairy". Will quickly goes from reluctant helper (to FBI AD Jack Crawford) to one-man creep-catcher at the risk of life, limb and family.
His flip side is psychopath Francis Dolarhyde, an abused child cum hair-lipped adult who believes that he is the living embodiment of William Blake's Red Dragon. As such he is collecting lives and souls on his way to his "BECOMING". Naturally, such a legend-in-his-own-mind doesn't take well to being known as "The Tooth Fairy", and gets such frustrations across in rather sickly creative ways.
The novel really gets interesting, however, when Francis' elaborate sociopath fantasy frays slightly at the edges and he must get truly, deeply creative to find himself (whateverthehell he is) and stick to whateverthehell path his damaged mind has him on tonight.
In hindsight, the real influential moments come from Will Graham's choice to enlist the aid of Dr. Hannibal Lecter, a psychiatrist by day and serial killer by night that Graham is responsible for catching. As in The Silence of the Lambs, Lecter here is much more interested in playing mind games and political ploys than in actually helping the innocent, most especially when the guy asking is the guy who took away his freedom. Sure The Silence of the Lambs does the same thing better and with a deeper story, but Red Dragon still keeps you guessing and manages to make everything work well both as a Lecter prequel, and as a Serial Killer mystery in its own right.
The term "Serial Killer" was not in common use when Red Dragon was being written and never appears in this novel. (Incidentally, the term "Serial Killer" first appears in a popular format in the James Woods movie Cop in 1987... not long after real life FBI Profiler Robert Ressler invented this term. -Reasearchin' Kneumsi) Regardless of this, Harris did his homework, from the early sexual confusion of old Francis Dolarhyde, to the paranoid fantasies, to the delusions of grandeur, to the self-loathing, to the childhood physical and psychological abuse, the "tooth fairy" screams and screams and screams textbook "Serial Killer" without a label to slap on him yet. Harris is prescient in his psychological profiling and is brilliant in creating a singular menace, not only different from Hannibal himself, but from all of Harris' future villains as well.
But as good as Red Dragon is, this novel still suffers from a better known, better respected, and just plain "Better" sequel. Also, it's clear that Thomas Harris was still honing his craft as he developed his novel. There is a little too much reliance on Melodrama (albeit thankfully mild), and there is a little bit of the shock for the sake of shock (or $ale$) here that feels a little bit done after Harris' many imitators.
There is also a hint, but just a hint, here of a supernatural influence. Not surrounding the Serial Killer himself, but surprisingly, surrounding Will Graham. If we're dealing with a super-detective here, doesn't that leave just a side order of "What the Hell?" to reconcile with us?
And it's true, at least from the perspective of the new millennium, that Hannibal Lecter feels somewhat underused here. In 1982 he wasn't a cultural icon, but he also wasn't much help to Will Graham's investigation or to Thomas Harris' plot. From the present readers might give a "Huzzah" to seeing this villain's first appearance, but in 1982, one must have wondered... why? Why give us this all-powerful distraction for Francis Dolarhyde to love and hate, and Will Graham to wince from? I almost want either a deeper look at his capture and hunt down by Graham, or a larger part here. As it stands, Lecter's appearance feels like a gratuity, a manicured slasher of a Kewpie Doll only hinting at what's to come... but again, that's just the Zeitgeist talking through me.
Harris does craft a wicked little mystery here, one that puts you both in the heads of the FBI Trackers, and that of the hunted killer himself (Dolarhyde's identity is never hidden from the reader). When you think you can relax Harris jumps off the page with a big fat "BOO!" Taken on its own as a great mystery thriller, or as the first of three Hannibal Novels, Red Dragon manages a more than respectable Four Stars out of Five! Now between the images of desecrated bodies, humans as food and fine art being appreciated for more than its visual joys, I might have a hard time sleeping tonight... But, once I do... I'll see you in the next reel! (But hey, if I can endure Freeway, I can endure anything, Killjoy!)
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