Book review: Red Dragon

Red DragonRed Dragon by Thomas Harris
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I first read this book years ago, in my early teens. My Nan had a copy – a tie-in edition for Manhunter, the excellently neon film version of the story – and passed it on. I devoured it – rather fittingly, given Dolarhyde’s dental proclivities – and the Thomas Harris kick was on.

Fast forward a couple of decades. I’ve just finished watching the string of Hopkins-as-Lecter movies (and that terrible the-war-made-me-do-it flick) and first two seasons of the Hannibal show. The latter takes Red Dragon as its basis, so I thought it’d be a fine time to revisit the novel.

It holds up pretty well. It didn’t seem immediately weak or transparent to me, which Patricia Cornwell’s works have been, lately. (They were amazing when I first read them as an early teen, but they seem a bit trite to my grown-up eyes – and littered with weird factual errors.) So that’s one for Harris. There’s some stuff which grates – the ‘Tooth Fairy’ stuff certainly dates the book – but otherwise it’s pretty well-written, particularly the observations on Freddy Lounds’s newsroom compatriots.

The best thing about Red Dragon is that though Harris is (now) known for the character of Hannibal Lecter, he isn’t front-and-centre of this work. True, he motivates key parts of the plot, and just what a prick he is is very evident, but the real focus of the work is Francis Dolarhyde. He’s a terrible, murderous figure but also – crucially – one which evokes great pity. He’s broken, and the flashback chapters aren’t hokey in the usual This-Is-How-You-Make-A-Killer way. It’s impossible to forgive him, given the terrible shit he gets up to, but it’s difficult not to cut him a little slack. That grey area – and the willingness to keep Hannibal as a dramatic device rather than a focus – is key to why the novel works.

It is, of course, an airport novel and reads as such. But you don’t feel as insulted by the experience as you would with other authors (or, indeed, some of Harris’s later works).

I’ll probably follow this by chowing through the rest of Harris’s Lecter books – but after so much Hannibal I think a bit of space is in order. Still, there’s no doubt Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs are the guy’s best works. There’s no sense of “holy shit, I have to write a sequel” or “here’s a book about the guy you want to see eat faces, but it really isn’t” in these two. Enjoy.

(As a side-note, I’ll be interested to see if the TV series plans to cover the Red Dragon stuff in a mooted future season come to fruition. I’m intrigued with what an obviously fannish production company – the first two series were kind of like fanfiction with excellent production values – will make of the work.)

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