Thomas Harris, ‘Red Dragon’ (1981)

red dragonI’ve just read Red Dragon for the third or fourth time, which is unusual for me. I don’t often re-read books start to finish; I might dip back into them, reading favourite parts again, but that’s usually enough. But Thomas Harris has been buzzing around in my head for a while, mostly because of the recent announcement that a new novel will be published in May. Harris is not the most prolific of authors; next year’s book comes 13 years after 2006’s Hannibal Rising, itself a reworking of an earlier Harris screenplay. And it showed; I love Harris’s work, but Hannibal Rising was a stinker. After reading it I put my copy onto eBay to recoup my money in the pre-Christmas rush. But nevertheless, I’ll be at the front of the queue when the new book is published, such is the level of goodwill that Harris still has with me.

Harris’s lack of production isn’t a problem if he continues to produce books with the quality of Red Dragon. This is my favourite of Harris’s Hannibal Lecter novels (I’ve yet to read his first book Black Sunday, which annoyingly isn’t yet available as an ebook in the UK), for more reasons than I care to name. It’s an exemplary crime thriller, one that not only draws you into the world of offender profiling and criminal psychology at the FBI but also feels wholly authentic.

One reason I enjoyed it so much this time is Chapter 42. This is towards the end of the book: criminal profiler Will Graham is close to identifying the serial killer known as the Tooth Fairy, although he yet doesn’t know it. In chapter 42 the reader is in the powerful position of knowing everything; and as we read, we watch as Graham puts the pieces together. To the reader, those 10 pages feel like an eternity. You’re willing Graham on, maddened at his lack of insight – even though you know you would be no more intelligent in his position. And that’s what demonstrates Harris’s skill as a novelist – he makes the reader wait. I’ve been repeating this message to my Year 9 class on an almost daily basis; we’re currently reading a bunch of short stories, with a view to them writing their own in the next couple of weeks. It can be infuriating – it certainly is in Chapter 42 of Red Dragon – but if Harris had given Will Graham Sherlockian powers of insight earlier in the book, it not only would have made it less satisfying, it would have made it less true.

When Graham finally worked it out – finally caught up with reader – I whooped out loud. It’s so unusual for a book to have such a visceral effect on me that I remember it very clearly. Given that he is putting his own sanity on the line  – and his family in mortal danger – Graham’s persistence and determination are all the more important. Despite some other more fantastical elements to the book, Will Graham feels like a very real character, one whose journey through the book sees him develop and change, in many ways irrevocably. It’s his struggle that keeps you engaged: you empathise with the main character, and you need to know when he will reach the truth. Their struggle to fit the narrative together is what keeps you reading.

For me, the 21 May 2019 – the date Harris’s new novel is published – can’t come soon enough. If it features Will Graham (highly unlikely, I know) I will once again be whooping for joy. But even if it doesn’t, I know I’ll be buying it and reading it from cover to cover as fast as I can turn the pages.

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