Allowing the Red Dragon to Dwell Within

Before reading Red Dragon, I’d not had the pleasure of reading anything by Thomas Harris.  Of course I saw Silence of the Lambs, and was probably just as enthralled with the character of Hannibal Lecter as the rest of the world.  Prior to writing this post, I did a search for a prequel to Red Dragon and did not find one.  This novel is described as “the novel that introduces Hannibal Lecter” in many venues.  It seems it’s also the novel that introduces Will Graham.  This knowledge changed my intended post tremendously.  I was first going to discuss Harris’s characterization of the villain and hero.  Now I realize that said characterization was done successfully on a larger basis than I first thought, with all the major players in the book. 

Harris’s showing of how such a job affects the members of detective’s families was well done.  We see so much of what the job does to the men and women who perform it, but they aren’t the only ones affected.  Molly and Willy faced repercussions of Will’s job when they had to be relocated after Lecter’s announcement of their address to the killer.  Molly is very upset and her marriage to Will is in jeopardy due to his going on the murder cases.  Willy finds his confidence in his stepdad wavering in light of the job.

As for the families who were murdered, we get a clear picture of the Leed’s and the Jacobi’s through their belongings and Will’s walk through of their cases.  The way he connects with them as if they are still alive makes them still vivid characters.  I did think that I’m really glad to live in a time when technology has advanced to the point that pictures and family home movies don’t have to be sent out for processing anymore.  That the families sent the movies without any hesitation or thought to their privacy says a lot, although at the time of the book, that’s just what people did because it was probably the only way to get them processed.  Both families exhibited a sort of innocence in leaving their lives wide open to whoever was at the video processing plant.

And Harris was well before his time in the crafting of Freddy Lounds before it was fashionable to malign the paparazzi.  Lounds was much like the reporters of tabloids and celebrity blogs in current times, not thinking about the effects his reports might have on Will Graham, the police department or the case itself.  Yet, I felt bad when Dolarhyde tortured Freddy.  Small details like how he had to gain respect among his fellow reporters and how he wasn’t the most handsome fellow created a man who seemed to be just doing what he could do to build his career, no matter how scummy the ladder he was building to the top.

In crafting a hero like Will Graham, Harris immediately shows a man who has left a line of work he was not happy with, although he was so good at it he was tracked down for his assistance.  His ability to connect completely with serial killers is something he doesn’t like to draw attention to, and he doesn’t want others to do so either.  His reluctance to address the detectives in the beginning of the case is evident in the two short sentences, “He didn’t want to go to the front.  He went, though” (Harris, 32).  One of his biggest problems is that he knows his skills are necessary in getting dangerous people off the streets.  So, being rather unique in his ability, he has to go to the front and help solve these cases.  I can really appreciate that Harris never went into detail about Will’s abilities.  They were stated with authority as fact, so we readers go along with it.  This was one of the things I was struck with, because when I read the book I assumed Harris’ readers had previously met Will and didn’t need all the extra details repeated.  Knowing this is all we get of Will, I’m impressed.  Simply leaning on the adage, “it takes one to know one”, it’s all that’s needed.

Frances Dolarhyde is what Will Graham could have grown up to be, with his own rough childhood.  Though Dolarhyde’s crimes are brutal, he’s a killer that evokes sympathy from the reader.  Having a birth defect that was so atrocious his own mother left him in the hospital was a horrible way to begin life.  That life didn’t get any better growing up with his cruel maternal grandmother.  Ending back up with the birth mother who abandoned him, who’d married well and had other children at that point, and being tortured by his siblings there had to all be the last piece in creating a serial killer.  It is implied that Dolarhyde’s choice in victims reflected the group that had caused him the most harm during his childhood:  his rich mother, step dad, and their kids.  Both families were well off and had much in the way of material objects.  Our killer even falls in love, garnering more sympathy.  In allowing Reba to escape, he showed that deep down inside the vicious soul was a small window of humanity that only wanted to be loved and appreciated the unconditional feelings Reba gave him.

Hannibal Lecter seemed incapable of such feelings, any feelings, really.  Portrayed as untouchable, I can see why Harris followed up with other books featuring the doctor: he’s the epitome of a character who is so large he clamors for his own story.  Lecter is the mirror that reflects Will’s duality of sane and insane.  He’s definitely one of the serial killers in the genius class, as he’s able to beat the prison psychologists at their own games.  I found it interesting that he was still publishing in medical journals from behind bars.  This exemplifies his own walk on the thin line.

As one must wonder if the writer also walks on the thin line.  Writers are often asked where story ideas come from, and a good writer has to be a vessel for characters and their stories, and allow the story unfold in the way it’s meant to.  The foreword was insightful in that, not only did it explain Molly and Will’s collection of the stray dogs, but it showed Harris’ own connection with the strays.  Will Graham was a stray of sorts for Harris, and in caring for him and giving him his own story, Harris was able to “let characters go, let [them] decide events according to their natures” (Harris, XIII).  Quotable quote:  ”You must understand that when you’re writing a novel you’re not making anything up.  It’s all there and you just have to find it” (Harris, XIII).

Works cited

     Harris, Thomas.  Red Dragon.  New York: Berkley, 2009. Print.


About rjjoseph

I am a Texas based writer who must produce words to exorcise the voices that will never quiet until I give them their due.
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4 Responses to Allowing the Red Dragon to Dwell Within

  1. John Dixon says:

    Great post, Rhonda! You touch on a lot of interesting points here. I, too, was impressed by the depth of Dolarhyde. As you mention, he falls in love, and this human touch to an otherwise inhuman monster generates reader identification… even a touch of sympathy. Most authors couldn’t have added this without weakening the psycho character, but then again, Thomas is Thomas. As you also imply, I’m glad Lecter lacks this connection. He’s much better coming off like an alien who’s visiting us.

  2. In popular culture today, we tend to focus on just the monster and the victims, but we often forget that there are others who are just as horribly affected. Think about the person who found the body. The coroner who had to perform an autopsy on a child who was brutally murdered, the cop who had to put himself in the killer’s mindset to track him down. How did the crimes affect them? What lasting scars did it leave, and will they ever heal? The depth of the characters seem to answer these questions, and I love that you keyed into it. Well done.

  3. Miles says:

    You make some interesting points. Though I’ve read this book like 40 times over the years, it never ceases to amaze me what people pick up that I missed — the Jacobi family being a stepdad, for example. And the point about Lounds being paparazzi as opposed to a tabloid journalist. I too felt some affection for Lounds even though his actions show a consistent disregard for other people. In the end, both he and Dolarhyde are likeable and even sympathetic in their own very peculiar way.

    My main regret with this book is that it is all we ever get to see of Will Graham, by far one of my favorite characters in all fiction.

    • rjjoseph says:

      I also regret that we see no more of Graham, Miles. He’s definitely one dark hero I would love to have seen evolve and fall deeper into darkness, even as he works towards the light.

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