Our book today is Thomas Harris’s ultra-famous 1981 novel Red Dragon, the perfect shard of falling crystal that triggered an avalanche of such proportions that most novelists don’t even dare to dream that anything like it will happen to them. The book was a moderate seller for Bantam in its modest original printing despite near-universal praise from the ranks of hack-punditry, everybody from Stephen King to the happy-go-lucky crew of the dear old inebriates at Saturday Review.
The book tells the popular inversion of the ‘whodunit’ formula commonly known as the ‘howcatchem,’ in which the reader is in on the chain of causation right from the beginning and the point of the proceedings is to watch how the good guys catch the bad guys. The good guys here are gruff FBI chief Jack Crawford and the reluctant specialist he calls in for a particularly gruesome string of serial killings – a former operative named Will Graham, who shot to fame for helping Crawford catch some of the few serial killers ever stopped … including a cannibalistic psychiatrist named Hannibal Lecter. And the bad guy in Red Dragon is a gigantic psychotic named Francis Dolarhyde, who believes he needs to slaughter families in order to further his transformation into something more than human. Jack Crawford believes his best chance for catching Francis Dolarhyde before he kills again is to employ the weird ability of Will Graham to synch his thoughts with people around him.
The weird abilities possessed by fictional sleuths seldom bring them happiness, and Will Graham is no exception. The very least that his talent causes him is a kind of oily embarrassment:
Graham had a lot of trouble with taste. Often his thoughts were not tasty. There were no effective partitions in his mind. What he saw and learned touched everything else he knew. Some of the combinations were hard to live with. But he could not anticipate them, could not block and repress. His learned values of decency and propriety tagged along, shocked at this associations, appalled at his dreams; sorry that in the bone arena of his skull there were no forts for what he loved. His associations came at the speed of light. His value judgments were at the pace of a responsive reading. They could never keep up and direct his thinking.
When Crawford is talking with a consulting expert on the subject, Graham’s weird talents take on a slightly more sinister cast:
“One thing I’ve noticed – I’m curious about this: you’re never alone in a room with Graham, are you? You’re smooth about it, but you’re never one-on-one with him. Why’s that? Do you think he’s psychic, is that it?”
“No. He’s an eideteker – he has a remarkable visual memory – but I don’t think he’s psychic. He wouldn’t let Duke test him – that doesn’t mean anything, though. He hates to be prodded and poked. So do I … What he has in addition is pure empathy and projection. He can assume your point of view, or mine – and maybe other points of view that scare and sicken him. It’s an uncomfortable tool, Jack. Perception’s a tool that’s pointed on both ends.”
In order to sharpen his talent (which has dulled during his idyllic recuperation in the Florida Keys, an earthly paradise well sufficient to dull just about any talent nature ever shaped), Will Graham goes to prison to talk with Hannibal Lecter, and in those quick scenes, the heart of that enormous avalanche is born. Harris portrays Lecter as an eloquent and artistic individual, witty, insightful – a serial killer in a jumpsuit, but the antithesis of Charles Manson – and the scenes are amazingly effective.
Even more so a few years later in director Michael Mann’s surreally visionary adaptation of Red Dragon called Manhunter, in which the part of Hannibal Lecter is played in a deceptively fast scene by British actor Brian Cox (a scene whose magnetic effectiveness was first pointed out to me by Open Letters film critic Locke Peterseim).
There was something about the character, something that drew Harris to re-visit Hannibal Lecter in his next book, 1988’s The Silence of the Lambs and give him a much more prominent role. Every intelligent critic in the known universe praised the crystalline, pitch-perfect prose of the book, but such praises felt distinctly beside the point once Jonathan Demme’s 1991 adaptation of The Silence of the Lambs hit theaters and introduced the world to Anthony Hopkins’ rendition of Hannibal Lecter. It was a landscape-flattening performance, and it made Harris’s character far, far more than a fictional bit-player. Millions of people who would never dream of reading a book will recognize at sight the famous mask-and-straightjacket get-up designed to neutralize Lecter during his interactions with potential dinners. Hopkins reprised the role, ten-pack-a-day young French actor Gaspard Ulliel played the character as a young man, and Mads Mikkelsen, in the ongoing TV series Hannibal, is crafting episode-by-episode a completely beguiling elaboration of Lecter subtly unlike anything in any previous book or movie.
Professionally underrated and almost preposterously attractive British actor Hugh Dancy plays Will Graham on the TV series, but his fine, nuanced performance is of course invisible, trampled underneath the Hannibal Lecter juggernaut, and that’s a shame. It’s a shame that can be rectified just a bit by re-reading Red Dragon, which is very much Will Graham’s book. It’s also a bravura performance by Thomas Harris, a hundred yards more expertly crafted than his previous book Black Sunday. In fact, all those famous movies actually serve to demonstrate how effective Red Dragon is – because the book is still gigantically compelling to read despite how familiar its contents are to so many of the people who might encounter it for the first time. If you’re one of those people, I highly recommend reading the book – there’s plenty of worthy stuff here that no film has yet captured.