NBC's new crime drama Hannibal, premiering Thursday night, marks the return—and first real reboot—of the single most intriguing character The Silence of the Lambs author Thomas Harris ever created:
It's almost appropriate that Graham never became the cultural icon that the show's namesake, or his nemesis-ally from The Silence of the Lambs, Clarice Starling, did. As originally written in Harris's 1981 novel Red Dragon, Graham is a retiring personality—and in fact retired, at a young age, from his work as a special investigator for the FBI. At the beginning of the book, Graham now lives in Sugarloaf Key, Florida, where he's married to a woman with a young son and has taken to repairing outboard motors for a living.
Graham's career at the FBI had been brief, lasting only a few years, but it was marked by renown: He is the man who caught Hannibal Lecter.
This is what we know about Graham's background: After moving from rural Louisiana to work with the New Orleans Police Department, eventually as a homicide detective, he went on to graduate school in forensic science at George Washington University in D.C. and then to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. He never made special agent, however. That was ruled out by his psychological evaluation. So they put him at the Academy as a lecturer while he worked in the field as an "investigator."
We don't know exactly how Graham failed his psych test, only that he did—and that the profile it yielded was also a sign of his ultimate value to the FBI's Behavioral Science Unit and its agent in charge, Jack Crawford: Graham has so pronounced a faculty of empathy that he can go past the rational limits of the evidence he's working with and connect the forensic dots emotionally. It's a crime-story cliche now, but it was sui generis as a character concept 30 years ago: Unlike anyone else on record, Will Graham can enter the mind of a serial killer.
Which early on took the kind of toll you'd know to expect.
Graham's first big case for Crawford was a psychological disaster. It was 1975. Behavioral Science was pursuing a serial murderer known as the "Minnesota Shrike" (named after a kind of bird that impales its prey and eats it later). When Graham arrived at the home of suspect Garrett Jacob Hobbs (remember that name if you plan to watch the new show), he found Hobbs's wife on the apartment landing, bleeding profusely but still trying to stop Graham from getting inside. Graham broke down the door just as Hobbs was slashing his daughter's throat. Graham shot Hobbs to death. Hobbs's daughter survived. But Graham ended up so traumatized that he had to spend a month in the psychiatric ward of Bethesda Naval Hospital before returning to the FBI.
Two years later, in 1977, the Bureau was tracking the "Chesapeake Ripper," whom they identified as a single figure responsible for multiple homicides because of the way he was methodically removing his victims' organs.
Harris's description of what happened next is the clearest portrait we have of Graham's singular ability—and maybe one of the most plausible accounts of a forensic superpower in history of detective fiction.
There was nothing outwardly prodigious about Graham's work here. He didn't elliptically surmise anyone's guilt from idiosyncratic stains on pant cuffs caused by rare brands of mustard. He just followed the evidence until it didn't lead anywhere anymore; and then he did the same with less-promising evidence; and then again; and then ... he noticed that one of the Ripper's victims had a healed stab wound among the wounds that had killed him. Checking the victim's medical records, Graham saw that the older laceration had come from a hunting accident five years earlier. So he inquired about it with the doctor who'd treated the victim in the emergency room at the time, a Dr. Hannibal Lecter, now a prominent psychiatrist in Baltimore.
Dr. Lecter is courteous and engaging but claims not to recall much about the patient. Graham comes away with no new leads or suspicions. But something nags at him. So he follows up with a second visit at Lecter's office. Lecter again seems cooperative. Still, nothing ... until very suddenly Graham finds himself overcome with the terrible certainty that Hannibal Lecter is the Chesapeake Ripper. So suddenly, in fact, that it visibly disorients Graham; the awkwardness is a fatal tell for Lecter; and while Graham excuses himself to call in backup, Lecter removes his shoes, walks up behind Graham, and guts him with a linoleum knife.
Lecter doesn't escape; he is apprehended by converging teams of Maryland State Troopers and FBI agents.
Graham doesn't escape, either; he is critically injured, nearly killed, requiring intensive-care treatment and months of painful recovery in the hospital.
He only realizes while laid up in bed how the insight about Lecter had come to him: He'd glimpsed a picture of a medieval surgical diagram known as Wound Man in Lecter's office; and the image had closed an emotional circuit for him. Graham had previously seen just fragments of hard evidence, but he could now see the full picture, like a constellation, by feeling Lecter's purpose in creating them.
Harris wrote all of this as backstory to the main plot in Red Dragon, where Graham comes out of retirement to investigate a new set of murders, turning to a now-incarcerated Lecter for help. It's a familiar conceit for anyone who knows Red Dragon's sequel (which has been uncharitably described as a rewrite of the earlier book, subbing-in the young FBI trainee Starling for Graham). Graham never appears in The Silence of the Lambs (1988), or ever again, apart from a few brief references: Starling mentions him as being "the keenest hound ever to run in Crawford's pack" and "a legend at the [FBI] Academy." Crawford tells her that Graham's face now "looks like damned Picasso drew it." And when Starling first meets Lecter, he asks her about Graham's scars. Frederick Chilton, the head of the high-security psychiatric prison where Lecter is now kept, remarks that Crawford is still angry that Lecter "cut up his protege."
Will Graham has been interpreted and reinterpreted by actors before. He was played onscreen first by William Petersen in Michael Mann's 1984 Red Dragon adaptation, Manhunter, later by Edward Norton in Brett Ratner's market-responsive 2002 remake. But Graham has never been reimagined by writers. Neither, I suppose, has Hannibal Lecter, unless you count Harris's own attempts to rework Lecter into the antihero of Hannibal (1999) or to give him a post hoc Chikatilovian personal history in Hannibal Rising (2006).