Red Dragon by Thomas Harris

The first time I read Red Dragon was when I was a sophomore in high school, when I was going through a huge obsession with Hannibal Lecter. He remains one of my all-time favorite fictional characters to this day. Because I wanted to read the books in order, I began with this one, which I did not know existed until I started researching on Thomas Harris. So, when I found that there was a full-length novel with the man who caught Hannibal as the protagonist, I was all in.

Once I finished the entire series, I came to the conclusion that Red Dragon was actually my least favorite of the four. It didn’t engage me nearly as much as the other books and I, at the time, would’ve said I actually didn’t like it overall. But when I looked at reviews of the all the novels online and asked other’s opinions of it, it appeared to be the favorite and most critically acclaimed. At the age of fifteen, going on sixteen, I couldn’t figure out why my opinion seemed to be the unpopular one.

Never thinking I’d re-read Red Dragon, I was surprisingly excited when I saw it on the booklist for my course on psychos. It provided a great opportunity to take a second look at the novel, especially since my many viewings of the movie adaptation were likely influencing my memory of it.

Needless to say, reading this after going through many college English classes and learning to look beyond the straight-up thrill and excitement of reading, I found I could now truly appreciate the aspects of Red Dragon that I hadn’t before. Other than Hannibal, Francis Dolarhyde is the most intricate and well-characterized killer that Harris has. He delves deep into Francis’s traumatic experiences with his grandmother and even to the more human side of him in his relationship with Reba. And, unlike The Sculptor, Will Graham can’t figure this one out so easily, and even had to resort to obtaining some insight from the man who tried to kill him. This novel, as per usual with Harris, also had it’s wonderfully orchestrated plot twists, though it did make Dolarhyde appear smarter than might be believable (though in a series with someone as genius as Lecter, this doesn’t read all that important).

The aftermath of the Tooth Fairy (Doharyde) leaves Will in even worse condition than he was left after dealing with Lecter. This hits the emotions a little harder than the heroic “we saved the day” feel that we’re usually left with in fictional depictions of killers. It made me understand why so many people have an issue with where Harris leaves Clarice in Hannibal (trying not to spoil anything here for those who haven’t read that one). The ending to Red Dragon feels far more true to the dangers of living so close to the lives of serial killers. And the empathy factor that Will has with them makes this novel feel more dangerous because of how close we end up feeling to these psychopaths.

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4 thoughts on “Red Dragon by Thomas Harris

  1. It’s amazing how we read book differently at different points in our lives. I remember reading this when I was younger too, and like you, preferring the later books. Looking back, I was probably expecting more Lecter and was disappointed that he is a more minor player in this novel. This read through, I appreciated the Red Dragon character much more. He is a well fleshed out character that is unique but also felt real. His issues were plausible and they threaded into the details of the murders perfectly.

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  2. This was my second reading of the book, too. I ended up appreciating it for Dolarhyde’s characterization just like you. And you’re right, Graham does end up worse off at the end of this book than when he originally tangled with Lector, so good point.

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  3. My copy of Red Dragon has a forward in it about Harris’s first encounter with writing Lector. It was really interesting to read how unsettled he was by this new character. It’s no wonder Lecter became such an iconic character, and that a first-time reader of this book would be disappointed by the minor role Lecter plays.

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  4. Excellent post! I agree wholeheartedly with you that, comparing my reading experiences between high school and post undergrad, I have such a different lens through which I read now. So, I thought that the fact you’d read this in high school and didn’t like it as much, and then read it again in grad school and were able to appreciate it more was a really unique perspective you could give us. This was my first time reading anything from Harris, and I’d only seen bits of Silence of the Lambs, so it’s interesting to read your perspective from then and now.

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