The popularity of NBC’s Hannibal has brought the Hannibal Lecter canon back into vogue. Silence of the Lambs might be the most famous iteration, thanks to the 1991 movie of the same name; but to find the roots of Dr. Lecter’s story, one must go back to Red Dragon, the 1981 novel that started it all.
Written by Thomas Harris, Red Dragon is told from the perspective of Will Graham, an FBI consultant with an empathy disorder that allows him to understand the most depraved criminals imaginable. And as anyone who watches the NBC show knows, the killers in Will’s worldstretch the limits of what is possible. In Red Dragon, Will faces off against Francis Dolarhyde, a serial killer famous for murdering entire families. After suffering horrible childhood abuse, Dolarhyde matures into a man who vents his anger into bodybuilding. His goal is to use his murders to achieve a spiritual rebirth, or Becoming, as a transcendent beast, embodied by a giant red dragon tattooed on his back.
The famous Hannibal the Cannibal is only a side character. In this novel, Hannibal is in prison for a lifetime of murder and cannibalism, including the attempted murder of Will himself. Like in Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal serves as a consultant for the FBI under the assumption that only a killer can catch a killer. The difference between Will and Clarice Starling, however, is that Will’s empathy disorder makes him dangerously susceptible to the minds that he hunts. Will’s struggle is not with family issues or recalcitrant institutions: his war is waged against the very nature of human evil, which could very possibly include his own.
Red Dragon is an electrifying, disturbing read that stays with the reader long after the book is closed. Silence of the Lambs might be the more famous installment; but for a good old psychological thriller, one should look no further than Red Dragon.