“One can only see what one observes, and one observes only things which are already in the mind.” 

Red Dragon by Thomas Harris

It’s been quite a few years since the first time I read Red Dragon by Thomas Harris.

And in the intervening years, the entire franchise—because the Hannibal Lecter story is indeed a marketing franchise at this point—has exploded into a pop culture phenomenon that has forever changed how we view the intelligent sociopath. Perhaps the most marked difference in re-reading Red Dragon is comparing the storyline back to the plot line of the television show, Hannibal, and noting how heavily the show leaned on Red Dragon’s characterization of Will Graham—and yet how it managed to spin off into its own entity as well.

It’s usually Dr. Hannibal Lecter that transfixes our attention, but for me, it’s Will Graham. And he’s just as fascinating in Red Dragon as he is in Hannibal.

Will Graham is tormented. And it’s the insinuation (and sometimes the outright accusation) that he himself is a psychopath that makes him so conflicted and full of delightful angst. Graham is the ultimate psychopath expert because he has that ability to put himself in the killer’s mindset, to walk through a crime scene and see it the way the killer does. He experiences the kill, the desire, the payoff, the victory. It’s darkly disturbing—because Will Graham is on our side of the bars. 

But Will has something that Hannibal Lecter and the Tooth Fairy don’t have. He has empathy. He’s redeemed by the human relationships he manages to hold together. Yes, he has difficulty. He’s not the easiest person to love or work with. But he does indeed manage. And he doesn’t have to resort to Dolarhyde’s kidnapping in order to hold onto the woman that he loves.

But this tiny bit of empathy, of humanity, is also his Achilles’ heel. If he can experience the killer’s desire and joy, Graham also feels the guilt and shame of feeling those positive emotions that the killer felt. Would his life be easier if he retired completely, stepped away from his work as a psychopath hunter, and let himself be emotionally whole? Absolutely. But he wouldn’t have the absolution of guilt that he finds when he captures killers like Lecter and Dolarhyde. 

Will Graham is the almost-psychopath that I’ll always love to love.

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