RED DRAGON, Thomas Harris' novel of a psychopath in the grip of the cannibalistic id-creature who lives inside him, is probably the best popular novel to be published in America since The Godfather.

As a veteran of the blurb-wars, I know that this is probably as far as Harris' publishers will read. You may see the "quote," as publishing PR people call the pithy little statement above, in ads for the book, cut down to a punchy minimum: "THE BEST POPULAR NOVEL TO BE PUBLISHED IN AMERICA SINCE THE GODFATHER!" With my name or the newspaper's name or both beneath it.

Such a "quote" will probably sell a number of books. Serious critics, however, will cock an eyebrow, sigh, and move on to the new Barth or Barthelme.

But Red Dragon raises an important--perhaps crucial --point about the role popular literature plays in the artistic life of a country so well-educated that almost everyone reads something. Edmund Wilson located the mind-set of the "serious" critic (who only criticizes "serious" literature, natch) more than 40 years ago, when he wrote an essay titled "Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?" The stance hasn't changed in the intervening years; even now someone may well be composing an essay which could be titled "Who Cares If Will Graham Catches the Red Dragon?"

The book will receive few if any "serious" reviews at all; space in book review supplements is notoriously limited, and why give column inches to a mere thriller? But it's a pity, because the best popular fiction can combine art with nearly devastating insights into The Way We Live Now . . . and if you don't believe it's true, read Wilkie Collins. He ain't no Dickens, but he holds up amazingly well, and tells us things about Victorian England that are as entertaining as they are invaluable.

Red Dragon summons to mind the best of James M. Cain, both in terms of the way the plot is cast and in those of the writing, which has the ferocious focus of a clean white light. Badly written popular novels sometimes work for me if the plot--the story--works in a new and fresh way; Jaws worked for me on precisely this level. But as important as story is, it can never replace that quality of writing which allows the reader to feel as if he has slipped into the driver's seat of a Rolls Royce, where everything is muted and everything works. Harris has it all working here; the prose ticks in such perfect time that the reader is amazed with delight.

"Graham had a lot of trouble with taste," he writes of the retired manhunter who is tagged to hunt down the homicidal Francis Dolarhyde. "Often his thoughts were not tasty. There were no effective partitions in his mind. What he saw and learned touched everything else he knew. Some of the combinations were hard to live with. But he could not anticipate them, could not block and repress. His learned values . . . tagged along, shocked at his associations, appalled at his dreams; sorry that in the bone arena of his skull there were no forts for what he loved." The language is colloquial but sharp, the delineation of character as neat as the primary incision of a scalpel in the hand of a high-priced surgeon. As with Cain, sentiment is only in the eye of the beholder, because all sentimentality has been stripped away.

If we call Red Dragon a suspense novel, then it also owes its debt to Cain there, because Cain more than anyone else created the genre, allowing us to know who the killer was, blurring the line between the "mystery" novel and the "straight" novel. Dolarhyde, a grandmother-raddled psychopath (granny once threatened to cut off his penis for wetting the bed), has killed two entire families in the South. He works for a film developing company and has picked his victims by viewing home movies sent in for processing. The man charged with hunting him down is Will Graham, who has an uncanny ability to think like a psychopath (previous to Dolarhyde, he has been charged with catching a mass murderer named Hannibal Lecter, dubbed "Hannibal the Cannibal" by the tabloid press) . . . and who pays for it. Oh boy, does he pay for it. The book describes their duel, and with his clean eye for prose and his impeccable choice of detail, Harris pumps an unbelievable amount of suspense into his narrative.

The book has its flaws (this is the part you never read in any blurb); one admires Harris' research into police and forensic technique, but one finds it impossible to believe that the FBI can operate with such technocratic expertise--one doesn't doubt that they have the equipment, you understand, but just that such agents as Jack Crawford, who hauls Graham back into the game, exist. Reba McClane, the female lead, is a little too much like "the world's champion blind lady" in Frederick Knott's play Wait Until Dark--I was a lot more interested in Will Graham's good wife Molly.

But none of this negates the novel's raw, grisly power or its inescapable picture of a society which is on the verge of drowning in nonsensical violence; it does not negate Harris' delineation of Dolarhyde, the psychotic "human monster" who uses his grandmother's false teeth to bite his victims. Like the best popular fiction, the book simply comes at you and comes at you, finally leaving you shaken and sober and afraid on a deeper level than simple "thrills" alone furnish.

"Serious" critics may dislike it for its sales potential (probably immense), for the movie that will undoubtedly follow, and for the accessibility of its linear plot. But most readers will respond, I think, to what Harris has done so well and so honorably here--they will respond to these two haunted men, Will Graham and Francis Dolarhyde, and to the Red Dragon which rises between them, so powerful and yet so irrational. As readers responded to Wilkie Collins' cogent picture of Victorian England in novels which were the forerunners of today's roman policiers, so I think they will respond to Harris's vision of a world where a madman can kill whole families . . . and then put broken shards of mirrors in their eyes.

It may be that "serious" novels of men growing menopausal in southern California only sell 2,000 copies because readers sense, in the unmasking of mass murderer John Wayne Gacy, in the assassination of a John Lennon, or the rape of a nun in New York City, a more vital, more mortal subject. The prose in this novel is in perfect sync with the pulse of the times, and in the end we may sense that the Red Dragon in these pages is real enough . . . too real. In showing us that terrible face here--the face that is never seen in the Blake watercolor from which the book takes its name--Harris does more than entertain; he is able to create that sane and terrible clarity which we call art.