Thomas Harris’s second novel and the first in the Hannibal Lecter trilogy, Red Dragon was released in 1981 to considerable critical acclaim. The book itself is bound with a blue theme, consistent with the idea of progression across the three novels – Silence of the Lambs in green, and Hannibal in red.
The narrative follows a compulsive and psychotic serial killer calling himself the Red Dragon, although the Police Department refer to him by the more flippant moniker of The Tooth Fairy, a reference to their only lead; clearly defined tooth marks in the flesh of several victims. In fact, the Red Dragon is a photographic film processor named Francis Dolarhyde, who is haunted by the classic painting The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with the Sun, which he believes is communicating with him and ordering him to kill.
The novel represents the debut not only of Lecter, but also of Jack Crawford – who, by the time of The Silence of the Lambs, has become mentor to Clarice Starling. However, she is not present in this novel, for the lead FBI agent is one Will Graham. Graham himself was responsible for the initial identification of Lecter as a serial killer, and bears the scars of his attempted murder, in the form of a long slash across his torso. Graham is put on the Red Dragon case as a result of this achievement, since Crawford believes that he can understand the mind of a killer like no one else.
Lecter is introduced as a sinister and mysterious inmate at the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane. Lecter spends the entire novel incarcerated, but the efficiency with which he intimidates Graham even from within his cell, leaves the reader in no doubt as to his amorality. The reader is also given a sense that they are joining a drama that has been unfolding well before the book begins – Lecter has already accrued a number of
victims, and mention is even made of Mason Verger, 'the one that got away', although his significance is not made apparent until Hannibal.
Biblical references are evident throughout the book – Lecter and Dolarhyde communicate via a book code using scriptural references, and the coming of Red Dragon is a prophecy from the book of Revelation. The book ends with a quote from Ecclesiastes 1:17, "And I gave my heart to know wisdom, and to know madness and folly: I perceived that this also is vexation of spirit." The evil bond between the two killers is thus emphasised, and the perversion of such Biblical quotations denotes the dark, sinister nature of them both.
The novel was unique for its time in a number of ways.
Shortly after Ridley Scott's Alien began the trend for double endings in film, Red Dragon invokes such a device in literature. Also, Dolarhyde is portrayed as a sympathetic character in certain passages; especially the description of his disadvantaged childhood, and his disfigurement is used to encourage the reader’s compassion towards him, not to repulse them from him. The same misplaced sympathy is eventually attached to Lecter himself, as a figure of
reverence and admiration – although for many people that perception was not complete until Hannibal.
In conclusion, Red Dragon is a triumph for Harris, and perfectly sets the stage for the following novels. Lecter does not need to be in the outside world to create fear, and his terrifying intelligence and
resourcefulness is readily apparent to the reader. Lecter’s significance increases with each successive novel, but already he is a crucial part of the plot's development. The eventual demise of Dolarhyde is predictable but brilliantly done. It is evident that, even at that early stage, Harris knew in what direction he would take his masterpiece for the next eighteen years. I can do no better than quote Stephen King: "Lecter is far more terrifying on the page than he could ever be on film."
Red Dragon was itself made into a film, by the name of Manhunter, although this never gained the notoriety of its sequels. There is talk that it could be remade with Anthony Hopkins as Lecter.
Update: As they so often are, the rumours were true; Red Dragon has indeed been made into a full film, which opens soon. I won't deny someone else the pleasure of noding all its details in full, although perhaps I'll add a little more commentary when I've seen it.