Thomas Harris Essay - Critical Essays


Thomas Harris’s first three novelsBlack Sunday, Red Dragon, and The Silence of the Lambs—share many characteristics with each other and with standard thrillers or crime novels; however, Hannibal and Hannibal Rising, although they still contain some traditional elements of the genre, are shaped by having a charming sociopathic cannibal as the protagonist. Harris’s second and third books have strong elements of police procedural s, featuring fingerprinting (including off a corpse’s eyeball), an autopsy, and serotyping.

In the first three novels, the protagonist is a government agent, motivated by human concern and duty to ferociously uphold the law, although the agent is still an outsider. Black Sunday features Major David Kabakov of Mossad, the Israeli secret service, who tracks the Palestinian terrorists to the United States, where he alienates American law enforcers because of not only his insightfulness but also his ruthlessness. Red Dragon features Will Graham, a peacefully retired FBI agent called back into reluctant temporary service to stop a serial killer. The Silence of the Lambs features Clarice Starling, a student at the FBI Academy who becomes central to stopping another serial killer. Graham and Kabakov embrace their ability to stop murder but grapple painfully with the costs to themselves and others. Starling is a woman in a man’s world, angry but not yet melancholy as Graham and Kabakov are—perhaps one reason the book was more successful.

However, while the perspectives and values of law enforcement agencies are firmly upheld in these novels, the criminal antagonists are drawn convincingly and with sympathy. All their crimes are portrayed as the result of their having been hurt, though also of how they have chosen to react to those hurts. Black Sunday really has two antagonists: Michael Lander, an American veteran and prisoner of war during the Vietnam War, and Dahlia Iyad, part Mata Hari and part an early example of Harris’s strong female characters. Francis Dolarhyde in Red Dragon compels both compassion and revulsion, as he struggles with his last chance to love a living woman instead of having sex only with the dead. Jame Gumb in The Silence of the Lambs is pitiful but less well developed. This is partly because, as the novel says, he is defined by “a sort of total lack that he wants to fill” and treats others like things. It is also because Hannibal Lecter overshadows him.

In the first two Lecter novels, Harris portrays Lecter as an unsympathetic character and discourages readers’ empathy. In response to Starling’s questions, Lecter himself says, “Nothing happened to me, Officer Starling. I happened. You can’t reduce me to a set of influences. . . . You’ve got everybody in moral dignity pants—nothing is ever anybody’s fault.” In Hannibal, this changes. Hannibal shows Starling cut free from the FBI after a scandal and the death of Jack Crawford. Soon, she no longer provides the legal perspective that...

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