Striderweb Reviews: RED DRAGON
by Thomas Harris

Reviewed August 2, 2000

In this 1981 prequel to The Silence of the Lambs, Thomas Harris tells a shocking tale of madness. He introduces us to Will Graham, the investigator who originally hunted down and caught the infamous Hannibal Lecter, (who is also first introduced in this book). Graham is pulled out of retirement to help catch a serial killer called the Tooth Fairy, who preys on entire families. The gruesome -- and this book pulls no punches when it comes to gruesome -- killer has already murdered two families, and thus begins a race to stop him before he kills again.

Graham, it is revealed, has an uncanny knack for getting into the minds of killers, which makes him invaluable to the FBI investigation. The book is excellent at illustrating the thought processes[reddragon.gif] that go into the hunt, as Graham follows a psychological and forensic trail ever closer to the killer. This part of the book is fascinating in its way -- Harris is excellent at building tension through Graham's intuitive reconstruction of the Tooth Fairy's modus operandi and the slow succession of revelations.

Soon, he introduces us more directly to the killer, a man named Francis Dolarhyde. Perhaps I am reading too much into the rather unusual last name, but it is interesting to note that "dolar" is reminiscent of the Latin "dolare", meaning "to hew, or cut"*, and "hyde", of course, is the second half of "Jekyll and...". This name can hardly have been an accident.

Dolarhyde is simultaneously a fascinating and mundane character. On the "been there" side of things, it is revealed that he is the way he is because, essentially, his mother was mean to him. Harris also manages to write an end to the book that is reminiscent of any number of other thrillers -- the "oh good, he's dead... but wait!" plotting that has been done so many times that it can hardly still be called a twist. Getting there, as it turns out, is where the fun lies.

This book presents us with one of the most bizarre, yet compellingly readable romances ever set to paper, when our nutcase meets a woman and begins a relationship with her. This stunning plot thread suddenly makes the killer surprisingly sympathetic, as the sane man within begins to reveal himself and struggle with the "Dragon" he has become. In addition, Harris takes us far into the mind of that woman, Reba McClane, and manages to simultaneously reveal both sides of the relationship. Reba sees an unusual and intensely private man, who treats her wonderfully; while Dolarhyde struggles to imagine what normal behavior with another person should be like, so he can continue seeing her. In the process, the killer begins to crack under the weight of normalcy.

Red Dragon has good points and bad, but my primary thought is that the characters are better than the plot. Overall the book is quite enjoyable, though the predictable ending hurts it somewhat. As anyone who has seen the movie The Silence of the Lambs knows, this author is very good at crafting complex, interesting characters, and it is on that point that the book shines most brightly.


*Webster's Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language.
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Originally Published 1981
ISBN# 0-440-20615-4 Dell mass market paperback
ISBN# 0-385-31967-3 Dell trade paperback
ISBN# 0-525-94556-3 E. P. Dutton hardcover

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