Red Dragon; A Review – My “Becoming” into a reader of a Thomas Harris classic…

I had heard of “Hannibal” – that iconic scene in the film with “Clarice” and the nightmarish image of Lecter with that muzzle over his face. So when I heard that one of my favourite actors had been cast as the “villain” Francis Dolarhyde in TV Series of Hannibal, I was shocked and surprised, and, naturally, curious. When I read various synopses of the character, all I seemed to read were graphic and gory details about his killing ritual; over and over – the teeth, what he does to the mother of the family. And taking this actor’s work in mind, I was shocked that he would go for such a seemingly mindlessly violent role. So I decided to investigate a little more, to get to the bottom of it all. You can find my reflections on the TV show itself here.

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NBC Hannibal cast


I got the book, and said to myself “I’ll see how it goes” – expecting it to be gore from cover to cover. I have never been so wrong. Very little of the book is gore – I’d say, maybe 10% (at the most) features graphic gory details. These are done very respectfully and forensically by Harris to the point where you can detach yourself enough to witness it as you read, but not so much that you lose the horror and the sadness of what’s happening.

The rest of the novel is crime procedural type stuff- and gripping at that – the short chapters give the novel great dynamism and I was hooked from the very start. The dialogue has a wonderful flow to it, and at times is almost like a screenplay in that there is very little third person narration at all. I also enjoyed Graham’s “empathic” approach to the investigation – it’s something touched on in a cliched way in TV crime dramas sometimes; “getting into the mind of the killer”. This felt authentic to me, it was his philosophy.

A lot of the story is told from Francis’ viewpoint, which are the parts I enjoyed the most. Learning about this man, what drove him to such acts. I expected a heartless, ruthless, demonic killer – instead what I what I read about was a damaged little boy inside a man’s body, who had been let down by the world, trying to find a way to cope with his insecurities and with a desire to be loved by “Becoming” something he deemed greater than himself, and attempting to achieve all this through this “Red Dragon” persona. I don’t want to give too much of the story away, but there are many redemptive features in Dolarhyde’s character. I found this re-assuring; perhaps, for me, feeling sympathy and empathy for the character I was reading about was important, and this was certainly present throughout. I did ponder on the fact that the parts the media seemed to want to talk about most, when referring to this work and it’s eponymous “Red Dragon” character, were the gory bits. Not surprising, of course, it’s sensationalising violence, as ever; but I find that pretty misleading in relation to the character, because he is so much more than just his murder ritual.

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Ralph Fiennes as Francis Dolarhyde circa 2002


The book is thrilling from start to finish. You start the story ‘tabula rasa’, as Will Graham does, and Harris expertly feeds you little bits of relevant information until it all starts to make sense, and then… BAM! Something happens and you’re left wondering if you understood anything at all! I’ve been a long time fan of TV crime/detective type dramas, but haven’t read many books in this genre. After reading Red Dragon, I will definitely read more. Often at times, I forgot I was even reading, which, for me, is a very good sign!

I’ve given this book 5 stars because it surprised, shocked, moved and enthralled me. The phrase “never judge a book by it’s cover” has never felt more poignant…

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Red Dragon – a Novel by Thomas Harris

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