Monday, September 24, 2012

Red Dragon By Thomas Harris

This isn't the first time I'd read Red Dragon.

I got it in my head at age 19 to get a big-ass dragon tattooed on my back. It was my first tattoo and it promised to be a doozy, so I took my entire rent check and wandered down to Telegraph avenue in Berkeley, CA. I walked in, paid my money, and sat in the chair.

Getting poked for seven hours isn't exactly a lot of fun but somehow I endured. In between the controlled karate breathing and occasional reminders to myself to uncleeeeench, I finished the book. The story of a man who believes himself to be ugly and reinvents himself as a dark, majestic god deeply resonated with me then and it still does now.

As a wanna-be writer, re-reading Red Dragon deeply intimidated me.

Sooner or later, all modern psycho stories become police procedurals. You have to have some reasonable grasp on how law enforcement works. I'm a research monkey in general, but if a serial killer was operating on the scale and violence of Francis Dolarhyde, then a writer would have to account for the massive amounts of resources and expertise that would be turned toward his capture. Harris has a background in crime reporting and, like The Wire's David Simon, he uses that insider knowledge to enrich his story. When I think about replicating it, I imagine having to know the structures and methodologies of federal agencies, the science of forensic pathology, and all the other details that make these sorts of stories work.

Granted, audiences are pretty forgiving. Cop shows on TV aren't particularly accurate, but people eat them up. But the smallest screw-up kills all that built up suspension of disbelief and I care about the small details. A good, effective, authentic police procedural is like a finely made watch and I don't know if I am a good enough watchmaker.

I'm going to get this out the way because I cover a lot of this ground in my Silence of the Lambs podcast, but I am kinda over Hannibal Lecter.

First, he's not really an authentic psychopath. He's too clever, too controlled, he lives in a creepy dungeon, and his abilities verge on the paranormal. He's basically a modern-day Dracula.

I like Dracula and Hannibal Lecter is one of the best monsters that has been created in the last 30 years, but I'm more interested in the psychological nuances of the other villains in Harris' work, both Buffalo Bill from Silence of the Lambs and the Dolarhyde from Red Dragon

Plus, frankly, for all the bluster about how clever Hannibal Lecter is, he always seems to be undone by his own arrogance. In their first encounter, he screws with Will Graham but immediately capitulates when Graham prepares to leave. He receives a letter from Dolarhyde and, rather than destroy the whole thing, he keeps the part that strokes his ego. Lecter is terrifying, but he's got a pretty significant achilles heel. It's the kind of thing comic book villains get tripped up on all the time.

Please don't tell him I said that. 

On to Dolarhyde.

I sort of live by the philosophy of "fake it until you make it." If it were up to me, I'd spend my free time in blissful bookish solitude. But having friends and building a life and being popular has taught me savoir-faire and social adaptability. Those who know me (and I'm assuming most of the people who read this know me personally) can attest to my massive personal charisma, but it was a learned skill, not something that came naturally.

I cannot tell you how many times I've stared at my own reflection in the mirrors of nightclubs and douchey bars, looking at the fear in my eyes, and telling myself to put my game face on. The shortcut I used to developing a social persona was to copy the behavior of brighter, more charismatic people.

In other words, I created an avatar of the person I wanted to be. It's a much more minor version of what Dolarhyde did. I suspect every bullied, tormented, and angry kid does the same thing. When I was little, Jason Voorhees was my anger avatar. Dolarhyde's avatar is the Dragon. I sympathized with him, and it disturbed me.

Plus....sigh...let's just say I can empathize with Dolarhyde's body image issue. More than I'd like to admit. 

If Dolarhyde simply remained a well-designed maniac then Thomas Harris would already be ahead of the game. But the thing that makes Red Dragon special for me is that he starts redeeming himself from his own madness.

Okay, Reba McClane is a little bit too perfect for the circumstances. She's blind, so Dolarhyde's body image issues aren't a problem. She was a trained speech expert so she knows exactly what to say to alleviate his fears. And, of course, she's sexually confident enough to break through his barriers. Suddenly he's fighting his psychosis and trying to make deals with the Dragon. It made him a deeply tragic figure and one of my favorite psychos. Most psychopaths in horror fiction aren't really crazy but are instead cookie-cutter pulp fiction cackling evil. They do terrible things because it's fun. Dolarhyde's actions come from human weakness and insanity. I don't know if I buy that Dolarhyde would backslide so far as to attack Graham in his home, though. He was too confused and conflicted by Reba to suddenly turn into a third act monster movie villain.

Still, Dolarhyde has the one thing that most fictional psychos lack: authenticity. 

It probably is clear now that I really enjoyed this book, probably more now than when I first read it. Harris is a helluva writer and I enjoy it more now than I did when I first read it.

My final thought is something Hannibal says to Will Graham. Graham's big secret superpower is his uncanny ability to empathize with a killer's point of view and anticipate their behavior. Maybe it's the fact that I've always had a big imagination and it mostly turned to darker places, but the line "Fear is the price we pay for imagination" stuck with me.  It's true, or at least it's true for my imagination. The upside? Fireworks behind my eyes. The downside? Lots and lots of sleepless nights with monsters under the bed.


Christopher Shearer said...

Getting a little confessional. I agree that Dolarhyde was authentic, but I can't agree with the praise of the book. It was good, but I wanted better.

Livewyr said...

I agree with you - this book creeped me out, too. I felt the characters were real in a way that I haven't felt with some of the books. With others, I felt I was being handled. I could see the writer behind the words. I was able to get lost in this one. I know Harris has some trouble with tense and passive voice, but I wasn't aware of the man behind the curtain. Good review!

R. D. DeMoss said...

Harris's authenticity is truly daunting. I don't think I'll ever feel comfortable sitting down to write a story about official investigators. Even if I do the research, I don't have the years under my belt of living next to that field to feel comfortable writing such an authentic story.

I agree with your thoughts that Dolarhyde's corruption at the end seemed a bit off, maybe forced or rushed. He was a very sympathetic character, and I was surprised when I started to find him more interesting and relatable than Graham, who seemed to sleep walk through the story without much emotion.

D.K. Godard said...

As with what Ryan said, I felt it was rushed or forced at the end as well.

On a separate note, thanks for the personal application. I'm fascinated with how what I read influences me and the hopeful influence and inspiration I may have a writer on others. So I applaud and thank you for being open about how you identified with Dolarhyde. I think that is what made him so intriquing to read about. Even if you want to avoid engaging with a killer you can sympathize with him because who among us has never had issues with our own appearance. I hadn't realized that was why I felt a little sorry for the guy until you brought this up and had to think about it for a while.

Also, great points about Lecter. This is my first read of the book and I've not read or seen the movies of the others in the series. But, I did also feel like Lecter was more like a comic book villain than a true killer.

Michelle R. Lane said...

Joe, as usual, I appreciate your candor. I also felt a connection with Dolharhyde and that made me a bit uneasy. However, I will be singing his praises with reckless abandon in my own blog post.

Again, thanks for your honesty.

Dwight A. Jolivette said...


C. R. Langille said...

I dug Lecter. I really enjoyed every part with him in, and maybe because he does have that supernatural feel to him. I also like that Dolarhyde tried to redeem himself in the end. Great insight on the story. I had some issues with some of the book, but overall I think it was a good read.

Querus Abuttu said...

I agree with Dwight. I've gotta see the tat. :) My first one was a piddly little scairdy-cat butterfly on the shoulder. Sooo cliche. My third one was better, in the middle of my back. A giant open faced lotus with Tibetan script that says "Om Mani Padme Hung." (May all beings be free of suffering.)

I'll say the book was okay. Harris writes very well, but the passive voice (me too, Gina) took me out of the story in some places. I've been in the military for almost 30 years, and twelve of them have been working in forensics/forensic nursing and court expert witness. I've gone over hundreds of case files, and what hits me every time is that people have HIGH expectations for investigators but the truth is they are fallible. They make mistakes. They are territorial, and they HATE to share information (in general). That's my experience, and that doesn't mean every investigator is that way, but it does explain a lot. So, I think that some of the things that are written that seem like bumbles investigators WOULDN'T make hinge on our expectations. Hindsight is 20/20, as Henry Lee can tell you regarding the Nicole Simpson case.

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Anonymous said...

You have the tat? Show and tell.

I agree that Dolarhyde's attempt at redemption (even if Reba is a little to ready-made for the situation) makes him a tragic--and better--character. He tries to be a man, but the voices of his demons keep him a small boy, afraid of Gramma and her snippers. All that is left for him is to become the Dragon.

Rhonda JJ said...

Dolarhyde was a great villian that inspires the thought that if there ever was going to be a serial killer, I can see why he turned into one. Going through the things he did as a child and adolescent, the most self conscious times of anyone's life (until the 40's), helped to craft him into a sympathetic creature that many readers can sympathize with.

Great post.