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.