Red Dragon

Note: I curse in this review!!!

Red Dragon is a brilliant book. It is overshadowed by Thomas Harris’ follow-up novel, The Silence of the Lambs, partly because of the movie and partly because Silence has a happy ending (if you don’t read Hannibal). The other reason Red Dragon doesn’t get the accolades it so richly deserves is that it’s depressing as fuck. I can boil this book’s theme down to two words: People Suck.

Red Dragon’s protagonist, Will Graham, is mentally ill. All that talk about empathy and projection is a bunch of psycho-babble; Dr. Bloom has no idea what he’s talking about. Will Graham has a bunch of problems. One might say that his biggest problem is trusting Jack Crawford.  At one point in Red Dragon, Crawford says “I’m not a total asshole.” Crawford is lying. He is a total asshole.

The agency Crawford heads up doesn’t have a clue how to catch the loony, so they have to turn to the equivalent of a water dowser. Crawford is well aware that Will is damaged goods, mentally, physically, spiritually. He doesn’t care. If Crawford knew how Will does what he does, he’d drop him like a hot potato. But he doesn’t have a clue how Will does it. The funny thing is, Will doesn’t have a clue how Will does it either.

I love the scene where Will gets mad at the cop who doesn’t believe his story about how he captured Hannibal Lecter. I mean, are you kidding me? Arrow wounds? No, what happened is that Will’s subconscious whispered there’s something wrong with this guy into his ear, and Lecter saw it on his face. Are Will and Hannibal the same, like Lecter claims? Not really. Lecter is a lot more put together than Will.

One of Will’s problems is most likely OCD – he exhibits obsessive qualities throughout the book, most notably by repeatedly visiting Dolarhyde’s victims’ homes. But Will’s bigger problem is that he has no boundaries. When Will and Crawford eat breakfast at the diner, Will is disturbed by the couple in the next booth having an argument. Crawford is busy eating his ham and eggs and doesn’t notice. Will notices because his brain is wired that way and he’s incapable of not noticing.

This is not empathy. Will can’t control it. His ‘gift’ is like a mean Doberman Pinscher straining at the leash; very often that dog will turn around and savage the person holding the lead. That’s why Will is not a nice person. People who struggle with these issues aren’t easy, on others or on themselves. Another thing that struck me about Red Dragon is that Molly is a saint, because Will says some hurtful shit to his wife (Will on the phone, saying you can catch a baseball game after Molly’s first husband – a baseball player – died of cancer).

Which leads me to Will’s biggest problem: he thinks he deserves to be in the GUTTER, which is where he ends up. Crawford merely enables him. Do you think it’s a coincidence that both he and Francis Dolarhyde are disfigured at the book’s end? Will’s epiphany – that the universe doesn’t give a flying fuck about Will – comes thirty something years later than Dolarhyde’s selfsame epiphany, but it’s worth watching, in the same way car crashes are worth watching.

The other thing I want to mention about Red Dragon is the character of Niles Jacobi, the prodigal son. Niles is the son of Ed Jacobi, the patriarch of the first family killed by Dolarhyde. I was struck by the scene where Will and Niles talk because on the surface there’s no reason for it. The reader already knows that Niles didn’t kill anyone. This scene gives us a good character moment for Will – we learn that he’s vindictive, which pays off in spades when Will sets up Freddy Lounds. You mean to tell me Will spends most of the book telling people how Dolarhyde will react and he doesn’t know that he might go for Freddy? It’s no coincidence that Will’s downward slide really commences with Lounds’ death.

That’s not the reason for the Niles/Will scene, though. Niles Jacobi is a double for Francis Dolarhyde. When I read about Niles using the family portrait as a drink holder I didn’t much like him. Then I used EMPATHY and PROJECTION and looked at it from Niles’ point-of-view. Nile’s father abandons him when he’s a kid. Since its stated that Nile’s mother is disturbed, maybe he could’ve gotten custody. Maybe not. I don’t know. What I do know is that Nile’s father cuts ties, starts a new life and then reappears years later after the damage to his son has been done and it’s too late. He comes back hiding his guilt with his work hard/live clean horseshit, and Niles is like sure, whatever. But honestly, Niles doesn’t give a fuck about his old man. Would you, if you were him? It all ties into Red Dragon’s theme (if you forgot, see the first paragraph)!

Anyway: Red Dragon is a great book, but boy oh boy is it a bummer. I first read this book back in 1993. After finishing I was depressed as fuck. At the time I didn’t know why, but now I do!


4 Replies to “Red Dragon”

  1. I couldn’t agree more with you that Will’s downfall is like watching a car crash. From the very beginning of the novel, he charted a course to self-destruction, and half of the building dread in the novel is seeing just how far he’ll spiral. The way Harris mirrors Will and Dolarhyde’s stories really drove home the idea that there is darkness in every one of us. The only downside to the novel is, as you pointed out, the depressing ending. I can’t see any other kind of ending for Will though.

  2. Your analysis of Will Graham is so spot on that it hurts. You’re right. People with these issues are never easy. What is easy, however, is being blinded by how fascinating they are as characters. They’re so gloriously flawed and they struggle-both of which make them so endearing to me as a reader. But in real life? I absolutely agree that Will Graham would suck the life out of a room. Molly is beyond sainthood. She needs an intervention.

  3. As someone who works in the world of customer service….people definitely do suck! I do agree that this book is highly overshadowed by The Silence of the Lambs novel and film. I’d highly recommend watching the Red Dragon film if you haven’t already. The scene where Will figures out the truth about Lecter, and with the arrows, is extremely well done. I actually watched it last night.

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