Thomas Harris Analysis


(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Thomas Harris excels in three areas: psychological insight into his characters, details of crime and crime detection (including suspect profiling), and a style that is accessible yet finely crafted and impressive in its thematic and original imagery. Because of this combination, his books are not only exceedingly popular but also more widely respected than many in the detective and mystery genres.

Serial killers appeared in fiction before Harris’s novels, but as David Sexton notes, before Red Dragon, “none had been so closely modeled about what was known” about real serial killers. Harris studied the work of Robert Ressler, who originated criminal profiling, and John Douglas; both worked in the FBI’s behavioral science unit, which Harris visited as early as 1978. The portrait of the FBI and profiling in Harris’s books is so positive that many critics believe Harris even affected popular ideas concerning real serial killers, the menace they present, and the best methods for apprehending them.

Certainly, many crime novels concerning serial killers would not have been written, or at least not have taken the shape they have, without Harris’s novels. In addition, the film of The Silence of the Lambs (1991) transformed serial-killer films, providing new realism and depth of characterization instead of the nearly supernatural villains and endless interchangeable victims of the slasher films. Ironically, Harris’s most famous creation, Hannibal Lecter, is not a realistic serial killer but a popular-culture icon who has been compared to Dracula and Mr. Hyde.


(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Achenbach, Joel. “Hannibal Author Thomas Harris, Toasting the Pleasures of the Flesh but Unwilling to Press It.” The Washington Post, June 32, 1999, p. C01. This short piece is representative of failed attempts to interview Harris.

Anderson, Patrick. The Triumph of the Thriller: How Cops, Crooks, and Cannibals Captured Popular Fiction. New York: Random House, 2007. Contains a chapter on Harris that looks at his life, including his Baptist upbringing, and his creation of Dr. Lecter.

Caputi, Jane. “American Psychos: The Serial Killer in Contemporary Fiction.” Journal of American Culture 16, no. 4 (Winter, 1993): 101. Examines how serial killers were depicted in works in the 1980’s, particularly in Red Dragon and in The Silence of the Lambs.

Fuller, Stephen M. “Deposing an American Cultural Totem: Clarice Starling and Postmodern Heroism in Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon, The Silence of the Lambs, and Hannibal.” Journal of Popular Culture 38, no. 5 (August, 2005): 819-833. Discusses the sense of betrayal and the outrage that readers felt over the ending of Hannibal and the transformation of Starling.

Jenkins, Phillip. Using Murder: The Social Construction of Serial Homicide. New York: Aldine De Gruyter, 1994. A book concerning actual serial murder, it persuasively argues that Harris’s novels, especially Silence of the Lambs, have done as much to create a fear of serial killers and the feeling that local police cannot handle them as true-crime writing has.

Magistrale, Tony. “Transmogrified Gothic: The Novels of Thomas Harris.” In A Dark Night’s Dreaming: Contemporary American Horror Fiction, edited by Tony Magistrale and Michael Morrison. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1996. This basic literary study of the novels provides good analysis of themes such as metamorphosis and comments on gender issues.

Sexton, David. The Strange World of Thomas Harris. London: Short Books, 2001. Probably a quick job, this collates all known information about Harris (not much) but spends too much time simply retelling or quoting the novels. Good analysis of characters and themes in the novels and their relation to Harris’s life.