The Devil is in the Details (Thomas Harris)

Thomas Harris produced six books from 1975 to 2019. Compared to most professional thriller writers active during the same 44-year span, this is a slender bibliography, but the middle four entries concerning Hannibal Lecter had major impact.

Red Dragon (1981)
The Silence of the Lambs (1988)
Hannibal (1999)
Hannibal Rising (2006)

The first and last Harris books, while still valuable, are unconnected to the Lecter mythos.

Black Sunday (1975)
Cari Mora (2019)

Red Dragon is now exactly 40 years old and remains the best of the canon. The opening chapter is perfect.

Will Graham sat Crawford down at a picnic table between the house and the ocean and gave him a glass of iced tea.

Jack Crawford looked at the pleasant old house, salt-silvered wood in the clear light. “I should have caught you in Marathon when you got off work,” he said. “You don’t want to talk about it here.”

“I don’t want to talk about it anywhere, Jack. You’ve got to talk about it, so let’s have it. Just don’t get out any pictures. If you brought pictures, leave them in the briefcase. Molly and Willy will be back soon.”

“How much do you know?”

“What was in the Miami Herald and the Times,” Graham said. “Two families killed in their houses a month apart. Birmingham and Atlanta. The circumstances were similar.”

“Not similar. The same.”

“How many confessions so far?”

“Eighty-six when I called in this afternoon,” Crawford said. “Cranks. None of them knew details. He smashes the mirrors and uses the pieces. None of them knew that.”

“What else did you keep out of the papers?”

“He’s blond, right-handed and really strong, wears a size eleven shoe. He can tie a bowline. The prints are all smooth gloves.”

“You said that in public.”

“He’s not too comfortable with locks,” Crawford said. “Used a glass cutter and a suction cup to get in the house last time. Oh, and his blood’s AB positive.”

“Somebody hurt him?”

“Not that we know of. We typed him from semen and saliva. He’s a secretor.”

It is quite a descent from, “Gave him a glass of iced tea,” in the first sentence to, “He’s a secretor,” in the last, and the story will only get more disturbing as the reader desperately keeps turning the pages.

The book was wildly influential. In 1980, future literary star James Ellroy was in the middle of trying to find his way, and later explained in the retrospective introduction to L.A. Noir: “I wanted to write a contemporarily set, contrapunctually structured novel about a sex obsessed cop tacking down a sexually motivated killer. I was not familiar with the term ‘serial killer.’ Thomas Harris’s brilliant and ground-breaking novel Red Dragon was yet to be published. I didn’t know that the mano-a-mano duels of cops and serial killers would soon become a big fat fucking cliché. Red Dragon – to my mind the greatest suspense novel ever written – spawned an entire sub-genre.”

Was this really a new sub-genre, as Ellroy claims? The phrase “serial killer” seems to have entered the general lexicon only in the late ’70s, but there were real-life and fictional precedents for the deranged killer trope: Jack the Ripper and others from the true crime files, but Harris could have read such psychological thrillers as Dorothy B. Hughes’s A Lonely Place, Margaret Millar’s Beast in View and Robert Bloch’s Psycho. The latter was also a crucial Hitchcock movie; some cite the Fritz Lang film M as the beginning of modern serial killer entertainment.

Seemingly random or psychopathic killers spar with cops in Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders and Ellery Queen’s Cat of Many Tails; the real-life Zodiac Killer taunted the police.

There are always forebears. Yet Ellroy is essentially correct: the fresh template of Red Dragon did spawn a legion of imitators. The driven cop is a genius, the twisted killer is a genius, and together they play cat and mouse within a maze of arcane data, data supplied by the finest forensic lab work law enforcement can provide.

One half of Red Dragon is technical, mainly sifting for relevant facts. In fiction, the tradition of “studying the crime scene” goes back to Conan Doyle; a generation or two later, Ellery Queen always listened to what NYPD’s Doc Prouty had to say about the body. Harris probably watched Jack Klugman play Quincy, M.E. on TV.

A related trope is the “crucial quotidian clue,” where some commonplace information found in the endless paperwork of methodical investigation unlocks a path to finding the killer. Red Dragon boasts a memorable crucial quotidian clue, and Will Graham takes a moment to celebrate:

One thing bothered him a little: the way he felt when Crawford turned from the telephone in Chicago and said, “It’s Gateway.” Possibly that was the most intense and savage joy that had ever burst in him. It was unsettling to know that the happiest moment of his life had come then, in that stuffy jury room in the city of Chicago. When even before he knew, he knew.

He didn’t tell Lloyd Bowman how it felt; he didn’t have to. “You know, when his theorem rang the cherries, Pythagoras gave one hundred oxen to the Muse,” Bowman said.

The other half of Red Dragon is psychological, where Harris describes and tries to explain abnormal human behavior. There is plenty of gruesome detail concerning violent crime, but the most genuinely shocking plot development is comparatively banal, when the twisted killer Francis Dolarhyde has sex with a blind woman. This seems to be normal, satisfactory sex (and takes place after a normal, satisfactory date) and may be the first time this necrophiliac has coupled with a living person. The whole experience of actually connecting with someone tempts Dolarhyde into contemplating changing his ways.

We read books like Red Dragon partly to escape, and rarely pay any emotional tax for this pleasure. In the work of Harris’s imitators, good usually triumphs over evil in a straightforward fashion. We can snap their books shut, happily saying to ourselves, “I’m so glad the monster got what was coming to him, and am looking forward to reading another installment with that cool detective.”

The original is darker and sadder. All the main characters have made too many mistakes. While his imitators have cribbed from everything else, the final scene of Red Dragon, an abstract visit to the Civil War battleground Shiloh, has not been influential on the genre. In terms of a genuinely confusing and existential last line, “Shiloh doesn’t care” remains in a class of one.

Hannibal Lecter is not the main villain in Red Dragon, but he has an important cameo. The author changes tense when we meet Lecter for the first time.

Graham had stared through the bars for about five seconds when Lecter opened his eyes and said, “That’s the same atrocious aftershave you wore in court.”

“I keep getting it for Christmas.”

Dr. Lecter’s eyes are maroon and they reflect the light redly in their tiny points. Graham felt each hair bristle on his nape. He put his hand on the back of his neck.

Perhaps if the story had ended there, the change to present tense (“Dr. Lecter’s eyes are maroon”) would seem needlessly arty. However, Hannibal the Cannibal is still very much with us all these years later. In retrospect that risky literary move was a masterstroke.

Five years after publication, Michael Mann brought Red Dragon to the screen with Manhunter starring William Petersen. While cheesy in certain ways — it was 1986, after all — the adaptation holds up today thanks to bold production choices, including a hypnotic, almost overbearing synthesizer score by The Reds and Michel Rubini. Brian Cox does a good job playing Lecter, whose character is spelled “Lecktor” in the movie, a meaningless change that reminds us that the homicidal psychologist was yet to become famous worldwide.

Lecter gets more pages in the next Harris novel, The Silence of the Lambs, a thriller that shines brightest in several extended dialogues featuring Lecter and fresh-faced investigator Clarice Starling. The homicidal psychologist wins our hearts partly through a command of etiquette:

“How is Will Graham? How does he look?”

“I don’t know Will Graham.”

“You know who he is. Jack Crawford’s protege. The one before you. How does his face look?”

“I’ve never seen him.”

“This is called ‘cutting up a few old touches,’ Officer Starling, you don’t mind do you?”

Beats of silence and she plunged.

“Better than that, we could touch up a few old cuts here. I brought–“

“No. No, that’s stupid and wrong. Never use wit in a segue. Listen, understanding a witticism and replying to it makes your subject perform a fast, detached scan that is inimical to mood. It is on the plank of mood that we proceed. You were doing fine, you’d been courteous and receptive to courtesy, you’d established trust by telling the embarrassing truth about Miggs, and then you come in with a ham-handed segue into your questionnaire. It won’t do.”

“It is on the plank of mood that we proceed.” According to the superior website A Connoisseur’s Guide to The Silence of the Lambs, “plank of mood” was a new phrase invented by Thomas Harris. (The only returns from a google search relate to Silence of the Lambs.)

“Plank of mood” doesn’t just suggest the dance of decorum and honesty, it also suggests the addictive balance between dry FBI investigation and elegant cannibalism. This “plank” would prove to be the ideal footing for cinematic adaptation.

Many great crime stories have made great crime movies, but usually the scriptwriter adjusts the original plot to a greater or lesser degree, the way Mann changed the ending of Red Dragon when creating a treatment for Manhunter.

Two famous 20th-century detective stories are unified internally between book and film. Dashiell Hammett wrote The Maltese Falcon with an eye to adaptation, and John Huston created and directed a script that faithfully adhered to Hammett’s story. Harris’s first two books, Black Sunday and Red Dragon, were filmed, so perhaps Harris was also thinking about an easy transition to script when writing The Silence of the Lambs. At any rate, screenwriter Ted Tally and director Jonathan Demme followed Harris’s novel closely, only tweaking a few details here and there. (Chianti is swapped for Amarone at the conclusion of the famous lines, “A census taker tried to quantify me once. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a big Amarone.”) The two movies, released 50 years apart in 1941 and 1991, set the pace for either 40’s film noir or 90’s nail-biting thriller; both movies also have animals in their titles.

The cult of Hannibal Lecter begins with Anthony Hopkins’s legendary interpretation. Jodie Foster’s brilliant portrayal of Clarice Starling was the ideal foil. The movie swept all the critic’s awards and entered the culture at large like a detonation.

A success changes things. Some authors respond to their happiest sales figures in unexpected ways; at times they seem bent on self-harm. Arthur Conan Doyle sent Sherlock Holmes off of Reichenbach Falls. (Conan Doyle resurrected him later when fans complained). Given a chance at generating a lucrative series, Charles Willeford’s first instinct was to make the charismatic lead of the surprise hit Miami Blues descend into utter darkness. (That manuscript, Grimhaven, where Hoke Moseley kills his two daughters, is still unpublished.) At the beginning of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams blows up Earth; later, after the franchise had made him famous, Adams sheepishly saved the planet in an alternate timeline in order to make a buck with So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish — before angrily destroying not just Earth but all of the main characters in the final pages of his last book, Mostly Harmless. (Eoin Colfer gamely tried to undo the damage in the eventual sanctioned sequel, …And Another Thing.)

Lecter was languishing in prison during the events of Red Dragon. He escapes in The Silence of the Lambs. There was one obvious thing for Thomas Harris to do next: finish up a trilogy and bring Lecter to justice. He could even pair wounded Will Graham and strong Clarice Starling together in order to find, trap, and kill Hannibal the Cannibal. If the author had just checked the boxes, there would have been an amazing payday for everyone involved.

Harris was never a fast worker, and the world waited 11 years for Hannibal. During that time anticipation rose to a fever pitch.

Once again there is a parallel to Dashiell Hammett. Like Harris, Hammett’s vast reputation rests on comparatively few books. Late in life, Hammett said he quit when he started to repeat himself: “It is the beginning of the end when you discover you have style.”

Hammett’s last book is The Thin Man, a somewhat incoherent and vaguely metatextual detective novel, although the primary plot seems to be simply about drinking as much booze as possible. Another important mystery writer, Donald E. Westlake, said of Hammett and The Thin Man, “He’s become a visitor to the scene he used to live in.”

Oddly, The Thin Man features cannibalism and psychological analysis, just like Hannibal. And while a few true believers can appreciate the music of these weird books, many readers regard them as a misfires.

In the case of Hannibal, it nearly put paid to the whole franchise. Jodie Foster refused to take part in the movie adaptation, saying, “Clarice meant so much to Jonathan and I, she really did, and I know it sounds kind of strange to say but there was no way that either of us could really trample on her.”

“Trample” is an unusually strong word, but perhaps it is justified. In Hannibal, Clarice ends up becoming Dr. Lecter’s sexual partner and they go off together to live happily ever after. Clarice had become a feminist icon, especially in Foster’s interpretation, and this conclusion was even more upsetting than killing her outright.

The first guess is simply that Harris could not keep his distance from his famous creation, and that Hannibal is the worst kind of fan fiction. It’s not just the ending that is so shocking, for the whole style of Hannibal is very different than the previous two books. Harris’s idiom had always been somewhat lurid, but now everything was lurid. There were no simple moves like Graham offering Crawford some iced tea, and very few moments of dry investigation.

Part of the tonal change might be simply historical. Both Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs take place before cell phones and the world wide web. During the decade Harris wrote Hannibal, the pace of technological innovation ensured that almost any kind of law enforcement data-gathering procedure — the kind of technical detail that was such an important counterweight in the two earlier books — would be outmoded a week or two after Harris did the research. Harris fell back on travelogue and history, writing a huge sub-plot set in Florence, Italy. He also suddenly defines the FBI as a terrible, almost evil organization, another attempt to give grit to a thriller that lacks conventional detection. (An academic analysis of the story declares that Starling is denied agency, but Jack Crawford’s final fate is even less heroic.)

One way to read Hannibal is as camp. What was formerly terrifying is now ironic. Just one detail: After the opening shoot-out, the Guinness Book of Records contacts Starling, wishing to include her as the female law enforcement officer who has killed the most people in the line of duty. This is not a serious crime writer at work! This is the author letting us know to keep our wits about us, and to wonder at the larger implications of being entertained by violent death. (Again, the name Charles Willeford might be relevant: surely the Guinness Book of Records bit is something Willeford could have written in Miami Blues or New Hope for the Dead.)

At the same time, if you are writing so many, many words about baroque violence and elegant taste, at some point any ironic or camp perspective fizzles out simply due to lack of oxygen. Still, there is plenty of room to admire the sheer scale of doing the completely unexpected. Hannibal is not bad fan fiction, it is a genuine attempt to change gear and stay original. (Hammett: “It is the beginning of the end when you discover you have style.”)

Harris is fairly reclusive and has given few interviews, but after Hannibal‘s release, he did offer new introductions to Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs, which essentially form an apologia:

I dreaded doing Hannibal, dreaded the personal wear and tear, dreaded the choices I would have to watch, feared for Starling. In the end I let them go, as you must let characters go, let Dr. Lecter and Clarice Starling decide events according to their natures. There is a certain amount of courtesy involved.

As a sultan once said: I do not keep falcons — they live with me.

(One more parallel for the Hammett buffs! Years after first publication, Dashiell Hammett wrote a short and revealing introduction to the Modern Library edition of The Maltese Falcon that has a somewhat similar tone to the Harris prefaces.)

For the last book of the quartet, Hannibal Rising, Harris doubles down on making Dr. Lecter less of a monster and gives him a tragic backstory, a trajectory already suggested in Hannibal. It’s quite conventional, and the narrative almost stalls out a few times. Even the title is starkly unimaginative. (Some thriller authors say they want to transcend genre, and in the one easily accessible profile, by Alexandra Alter in 2019, Harris takes the “transcend genre” trope to new heights: “…He wrote some of the exchanges between Hannibal and his aunt, Lady Murasaki, in the poetic style of the Heian period, as a homage to the 11th-century Japanese novel, The Tale of Genji.”)

Supplying backstory is usually the first sign that a franchise is running out of gas. By this time, the adaptations are interacting with Harris in a straightforward fashion, and therefore some of the creative ennui was not the author’s fault. The film industry is a behemoth that taketh away as well as giveth. Dino De Laurentiis, who had acquired the rights to the film character of Lecter when he produced Manhunter decades before, told Entertainment Weekly, ”I say to Thomas, ‘If you don’t do [the prequel], I will do it with someone else…I don’t want to lose this franchise. And the audience wants it…’ He said, ‘No. I’m sorry.’ And I said, ‘I will do it with somebody else.’ And then he said, ‘Let me think about it. I will come up with an idea.”’

To quickly recap: The book Hannibal comes out in 1999, it hits the screen two years later with a less transgressive ending. Hollywood puts out another Red Dragon in 2002 while waiting for slow-poke Harris to produce something new. The book Hannibal Rising comes out in December 2006, it appears in the multiplexes February 2007, scripted by Harris himself.

These movies might have their moments but it all starts to feel more like another reasonably anonymous horror franchise of the era like Final Destination or Saw. Certainly nothing makes Michael Mann’s stylized Manhunter look better than a viewing of Brett Ratner’s bland Red Dragon.

One would think enough was enough already. But Bryan Fuller saw something most would not, and in 2013 pulled off an impressive sleight-of-hand trick with the NBC series Hannibal. Fuller not only accepted all the Harris books as canon, including the camp elements of Hannibal and Hannibal Rising, but even went further than the author when conjuring an oppressive amount of unseemly gore. However, rather than having Clarice Starling in a charged, potentially sexual relationship with Hannibal Lecter, Fuller places Will Graham in exactly the same position. Lecter’s engaging turn in the first season recalls another important forebear, The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith, where a smart boy tells many believable lies. It is a testament to the durability of the Lecter character that three great actors, Brian Cox, Anthony Hopkins, and Mads Mikkelsen, have all made Hannibal their own.

While never a breakout hit, Hannibal garnered a devoted cult audience. In the third and final season, Fuller retells the Red Dragon story, and even supplies the most appropriate heroic trajectory thus far, where Will Graham and Hannibal Lecter hunt Francis Dolarhyde side-by-side, an obvious nod to the way Hannibal and Clarice join forces in the original Harris sequence. (It may also be a nod to the original expectation that Graham and Starling would take down Lecter together.) Fuller and company managed to fix Harris’s great experiment and give new luster to diminished franchise.

This past year, Clarice debuted on CBS as a fairly conventional procedural, starting right where The Silence of the Lambs left off and disregarding the events of Harris’s sequel. The ratings were low and the show seems to be cancelled — or at least in limbo — which is another way of confirming that Harris was right to attempt something radical way back in 1999 with the publication of Hannibal.

In the Harris preface to Red Dragon, he tells of writing Lecter for the first time:

When in the winter of 1979 I entered the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane and the great metal door crashed closed behind me, little did I know what waited at the end of the corridor; how seldom we recognize the sound when the bolt of our fate slides home.

One of Hannibal’s many victims is Harris himself. The two non-series books suggest an alternate timeline, where there was much less public scrutiny and the author was free to write varied stories. His maiden voyage, Black Sunday, is a workmanlike study, a close look at the nuts and bolts of a major terror attack. For what it is, it is very good, although Harris could have tried harder to include a few more Arabic characters as sympathetic as his Israelis.

The latest, Cari Mora, published three years ago when the author was in his late 70s, is even better, a campy and hilarious story of hidden gold and lurid revenge. Harris turns his watchmaker’s eye for detail on his home environs of Miami Beach, with a major cameo from the Pelican Harbor Seabird Station, the real-life refuge where Harris has volunteered for many years.

Some of the reviews of Cari Mora were strikingly unsympathetic, even petulant. (The Irish Times, The Guardian.) Part of the problem is simply the weight of history: Harris has left a major mark, and his critics are unable to take his work at face value. This is their loss, for not only is Cari Mora solid over-the-top escapism, it also suggests that the author is having a good time at last.

Thanks to Hannibal the Cannibal’s superb taste in food and drink, any reviewer of Thomas Harris has a full menu of metaphors on the table. I’ve held off until now, but can’t resist any longer: Cari Mora could never have been a main meal, but it is a perfect dessert.

Endnotes and Footnotes:

Sarah Weinman, Glenn Kenny, and Vince Keenan offered encouragement and helpful comments.

On Twitter, Anthony Dean-Harris informed me that the story of Red Dragon was retold on the third season of NBC Hannibal, sparking my interest, while in real life Marcy and Rob Harriell are fans of the TV show and suggested I check it out. (Without those two friendly pushes I might not have gotten there.)

The antlers from NBC Hannibal predates the antlers of True Detective by a year, although I suspect it was not a direct influence. Nonetheless, True Detective is indebted to Harris and Red Dragon, there’s even a solid “crucial quotidian clue” unearthed from the boxes and boxes of paperwork. It is worth mentioning some of the other children? CSI and Dexter are fairly different shows, but they have some of the same Harris material in the background. Patricia Cornwell and Andrew Vachss got started in the mid-’80s after Red Dragon; again, Cornwell and Vachss are pretty different (they may not even share the same audience) but both authors obviously studied Harris. Even big-name mystery writers who didn’t usually write serial killers did a Red Dragon knock-off, for example Robert B. Parker and his mediocre Crimson Joy. (Lee Child did an admirable job of turning the tropes on their heads in Running Blind.) John Sandford and Michael Connelly are two of the longest-running and bestselling current favorites; both began with Dragon-inspired material before moving into less serial killer-oriented stories. It is impossible to namecheck everyone else: This is Thomas Harris’s world, we just live in it.

Perhaps I went too far with my references to Dashiell Hammett above. However, I’m not done. Not only did both Hammett and Harris only write a handful of books, each book is quite unlike each other. This determination to make each story new is pretty rare for a genre writer; indeed, it is hard to think of another famous crime novelist other than Harris who would echo Hammett’s comment, “It is the beginning of the end when you discover you have style.” The author worked hard at distinguishing The Silence of the Lambs from Red Dragon. There are obvious differences — Will Graham was an old hand, Clarice Starling was a rookie of the opposite sex — but many other subtle details are not congruent between the stories. Towards the end of Silence of the Lambs, there’s a nearly-audible banging of the gears when Starling’s late in the game insight about sewing does not solve the plot. Indeed, not a single scrap of paper filed by the FBI leads to the final rescue, it all comes from Lecter’s amused gifts of insight to Starling. (In Red Dragon, Lecter doesn’t help Graham in the slightest.)

Most genre books do not get really high-profile differences of opinion, but in the case of Hannibal, Stephen King wrote a glowing review in the New York Times (“The third and most satisfying part of one very long and scary ride through the haunted palace of abnormal psychiatry”) and Martin Amis offered a dire judgment in Talk (“Harris has become a serial murderer of English sentences, and Hannibal is a necropolis of prose”). The truth must lie somewhere between.

Irrelevant personal anecdote:

In January 1992 the New York Film Critics Circle Awards took place at the Pegasus Room in Rockefeller Center, where The Silence of the Lambs was a big winner. The National Improvisational Theatre, a comedy group led by Tamara Wilcox-Smith, was hired to be the evening’s entertainment. I was NIT’s pianist, and that night my job was to play the Aria of the Goldberg Variations while the comics riffed on the culinary practices of Hannibal Lecter. Jodie Foster and Jonathan Demme were there, as were trans rights activists who stealthily leafleted the tables. (The book is better than the movie on this topic.) Some of the guests were visibly angered by the activists, but Demme got up and defused the situation, saying they had the right to protest. Bill Murray was there, he was my absolute favorite, I actually cornered poor Mr. Murray and said, “Thank you for teaching my generation about mediocrity and how to fight it with irony.” (I was 18.) Jason Robards was there, and when I was playing some cocktail piano for dinner hour, Robards came up — unprompted — and said I sounded really good.