Friday, July 24, 2015

Book review: Red Dragon by Thomas Harris

Red Dragon

Written by: Thomas Harris

Published: 1981

Synopsis: Will Graham stands in a silent, empty house communing with a killer. An FBI instructor with a gift for hunting madmen, Graham knows what his murderer looks like, how he thinks, and what he did to his victims after they died. Now Graham must try to catch him. But to do it, he must feel the heat of a killer's brain, draw on the macabre advice of a dangerous mental patient, Dr. Hannibal Lecter, and follow a trail of microscopic clues to the place where another family has already been chosen to die--and where an innocent woman has found the Dragon first. (Via Goodreads)


“It's hard to have anything isn't it? Rare to get it, hard to keep it. This is a damn slippery planet.”

Tom and I started Bryan Fuller's series Hannibal when we heard it had been cancelled. We'd both been wanting to watch it for awhile, but we have so many ongoing shows we watch that it was kind of exhausting to add yet another one to the list. So the cancellation, though very sad (more so now that we know how great the show is), let us feel like we could finally make the commitment to the show. After we finished each episode, I'd look up the AV club review and see what people had said. One thing I hadn't really expected was a continued discussion on how faithful to the book(s) the show is, especially since it takes place prior to the events of the Harris novels. 

Interest piqued, I decided to find out for myself. What I discovered that the TV show is very clever at weaving lines and references from the book into the show, but also, this book is hella cool.

For those of you who have watched the TV show,* Red Dragon takes place four-five years after any events in the show (maybe longer? It's 4 years since Hannibal's capture in the book but I don't know when/if Hannibal will be caught in the show). After catching and then nearly dying at Hannibal Lecter's hand, Will Graham has removed himself from the FBI and settled down and married. He's still troubled by his days in the FBI, but he finds a quiet satisfaction working with his hands and not empathising with serial killers for a living (whodathunkit?). Oh wait, did I say he was content? Enter Jack Crawford, desperate for Will's insight into a new serial killer known as the Tooth Fairy. 

At the new moon, the Tooth Fairy kills an entire family. The deaths are quick and mostly painfree, except for the mothers who seem to receive the lion's share of the aggression and attention. Graham is called in to try and make the connection between the two families that no one else has been able to find, but in involving himself in the case he throws his fragile life into a tailspin. His new family is tense and close to falling apart, as is his sanity. Working in pursuit of a serial killer can't be easy on anyone but for Will it seems extra destructive. At one point Will visits the imprisoned Hannibal Lecter to try and get his perspective and this terrible toll on Will is explained, the line between killers and Will is especially thin. Will is gifted (cursed?) with the ability to empathise completely which obviously causes pain, but it also blurs the line about Will's self. Is he able to empathise on a purely scholarly level, or is it because he's the same as them, evil and destructive like them? 

The narrative is primarily framed around Will, however there are chapters that travel back to the Tooth Fairy's (aka Red Dragon, aka Francis Dolarhyde) childhood and adolescence, or spends time with him as he goes through his daily routine and gets ready to attack another family. There is also a section or two framed around Hannibal Lecter and Jack Crawford or other smaller characters, to help fill out the story without having Will inserted into every single scene. As the book gets closer to its final act, the Dolarhyde chapters increase and we see his fractured sense of self and mental instability which is often mirrored against Will. It becomes a story that's both about the hunt for a serial killer and an introspection into the psyche of people who live on the fringe of society.

Lest those of you who watch the TV show think that this aligns with TV-Will...hold your horses. While his ability to empathise with killers is a part of his character and a leading role in his fragility, Book-Will does a lot more detective work than TV-Will ever does. While he certainly gets a "feeling" that he can't define through actual evidence, he also has an eidetic memory which helps greatly as he spends hours upon hours sifting through evidence. There's a stronger foundation of reality in Red Dragon than in the show, which tends to favour aesthetic and theme over narrative stability.

I found the ending a little unsatisfying. I didn't have an issue with the events themselves, but they were written in such a vague way that I actually wasn't entirely sure what I was reading at first. My other major problem was the absolute lack of female characters in the book. There were two, I think, maybe three. I could have forgiven the small number if they were at least characters with some depth, but I found them decidedly lacking.Ultimately though, these two issues weren't strong enough to effect my general enjoyment of the book and I'll definitely be seeking out Silence of the Lambs when I'm next at the library. Goodbye Will.

*Yes, I know that there is a film adaptation of Red Dragon. No I will not comment on it or refer to it in the review because it is NOT GOOD.


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