The novel Red Dragon by Thomas Harris suggests that serial killers are different from us normal folks. There is the us and the them. Them want things that us cannot comprehend. Them will go to incredible lengths to obtain these desires. To capture these killers us normal folks need to understand them, and to understand them we need to become them. At least that what Will Graham does. He puts himself in the killer’s shoes and reenacts the murders in his mind. He does this so well that sometimes it wears off and he has to take a mental sabbatical in an asylum to get his marbles back.
A psychologist in the novel refers to Will Graham’s condition as pure empathy, a trait that seems crucial to any aspiring author. But the intriguing thing here is the issue of psychotic behavior, which is only a subjective term at best, and how the empathetic understanding of a psychopath can taint our own sanity. This novel treats psychosis as a disease, a contagious disease. While this might be true along family lines, this book warns against obsessing over psychopaths. Think about them too much and they’ll get inside you!
Since the story begins after the murders are committed, Will Graham walks us through during his empathetic reconstruction. This has a strange effect and makes him the primary vehicle for the novel’s horror. The actual killer is more of an oddity than horrific, but since Will Graham is the one with his foot in the normal world it is his transformation that we actually care about. We want him to win, but we don’t want it to cost him everything. Standing with him in the murder houses while he steps into the killers mind is terrifying because he has so much to loose.
I think the reason for this terror might be because we all have the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, at least to a degree, and if we have the ability to imagine then how many more steps will it take to push us the rest of the way? Can our minds become tainted like Graham’s? I don’t know. I hope I never find out, but a novel that raises these types of questions is doing something right.
But unfortunately the novel doesn’t seem to be aware of this. About halfway through, the focus shifts from Graham to Francis Dolarhyde, the killer. We are given lots of backstory on Dolarhyde’s past. It is the deformed serial killer with abusive family who tortures small animals routine. I know this is true from a psychological standpoint, but it’s sad and dull to read about. It doesn’t show us anything new. And to be honest I don’t care what drove him to murder two families, and I really don’t want to sympathize with him because of his abuse. I want him to get caught. I want Graham to catch him, and I want to be with Graham as he discovers these details about the killer.
If we were going to plow into a backstory it should have been Graham’s so we cansee his struggle with pure empathy, and how that lead to Hannibal Lecter’s capture, but we don’t. Instead Graham is spinning his wheels for the second half of the novel while we have a dark, romantic comedy between a serial killer and a blind woman. I don’t understand why we went there, but I think it’s interesting to note that inThe Silence of the Lambs, the sequel that outsold this predecessor, we get far less time with the killer. The focus stays with the investigation for the majority of that novel. Thomas Harris must have done the math. In the end, we can relate to Will Graham and Clarice Starling because they create stronger emotional links than the killers they are investigating.