Are Snakes Necessary? by Brian De Palma and Susan Lehman
Titan Books ‘Hard Case Crime’ imprint offers an interesting blend of old and new crime fiction, reprinting classics from the 1950s and 60s by authors such as Mickey Spillane, Donald Westlake and Ed McBain (I reviewed McBain’s Cut Me In for Shiny here) alongside new fiction like Joyland by Stephen King, to namecheck just a few, (see the full list here). The imprint is known for its glorious cover art done in homage to the pulp originals – the women may be scantily clad, but you do feel that they are in charge!
Now they are joined by veteran film director Brian De Palma, who has co-written Are Snakes Necessary? with former editor Susan Lehman of the NYT. De Palma has made many notable films: I never liked Scarface (but perhaps that’s the Oliver Stone script rather than De Palma’s direction), but the earlier Carrie and the later The Untouchables are both up there amongst my favourites. He’s also known for his psychological thrillers such as Dressed to Kill – I remember the controversy around that one when it came out in 1980. All his films, even the duds like Bonfire of the Vanities, have a strong visual flair and an edge to them, so I was hoping for a strong first novel full of cinematic verve and a few references that I could recognise.
The first character we meet is Barton Brock, and the opening lines set the tone:
Barton Brock had a bad day. A very bad day.
The vasectomy was not, as the doctor promised, painless. Brock’s balls hurt and he is having unpleasant thoughts about swelling, discoloration and perpetual soreness.
This is not the worst of it. The poll numbers are devastating. It looks like Jason Crump is going to get creamed. The primary is just four weeks away.
The Pennsylvanian Republican party’s primary is coming up, and Crump is unlikely to succeed against the incumbent, Lee Rogers. Brock, knowing that Rogers has a penchant for a pretty woman, decides to set him up with a honey trap. Unfortunately the woman he hires, a beautiful blonde waitress, has ambitions and can bear a grudge. His plan backfires when Elizabeth deCarlo and Senator Rogers turn the trap around on Brock. Brock is forced to pay her off and set her up with a casino job in Vegas where she will reinvent herself, but not forget.
Brock though, is lucky, he jumps ship to join Rogers’ campaign and the story turns to following the Senator on the road. The Senator’s wife Connie, has Parkinson’s and is, so he thinks, unaware of any liaisons he’s had over the years, but he loves her and would never leave her, even for air hostess Jenny Cours. That was years ago, but when Rogers bumps into Cours again at a hotel where she’s on stopover, she introduces him to her 18-yr-old daughter, Fanny, a film student. Fanny persuades Rogers to take her on the road with him to make behind the scenes videos of the real Lee Rogers. You can guess what’s going to happen!
There’s just one more main character to note. Nick Sculley is a photographer in a rut, handsome and always dressed in his trademark crisp white shirt. He’s heading west from NYC to try his luck in California when he bumps into Elizabeth:
Nick can’t place Elizabeth’s accent. Bedroom maybe.
So you can see where that’ll lead to too. Nick will ultimately end up in Paris working as a behind the scenes photographer on a remake of Vertigo, (which was based on the novel D’entre les morts by French crime duo Boileau-Narcejac). Paris is also where the novel will reach one of two climaxes – yes two!
So we have the fixer, the philanderer, the photographer, the ingenue and the woman scorned. Five well-fleshed out characters that intertwine more intensely as the novel goes on, although I was mostly interested in Elizabeth and, to a slightly lesser extent, Nick, than the others who were more stereotypical. I enjoyed the elements of political satire and the dark soap opera of the plot, done with tongue in cheek. De Palma and Lehman mainly let the characters drive the narrative for around two thirds of the book’s 240 pages before ramping things up in Paris, and then an extended coda. I enjoyed the more slowburn start and middle more than the latter stages of the book, especially the final chapters, which frankly, stretched the limits of plausibility a bit.
If you were expecting the more violent side of De Palma, this novel has its moments, but it’s not that kind of noir. There is moral ambiguity in abundance in the manipulation of and by key characters, and I sped through the pages. There was a cinematic feel to many of the scenes, but apart from the obvious Hitchcock homage and many possible influences at one key location which I shan’t reveal, I didn’t spot many other obvious references. (The title of the novel apparently comes from a book Henry Fonda is reading in the Preston Sturges film The Lady Eve.) In summary, this novel isn’t perfect, but it is definitely an engaging read. (7.5/10)
Source: Review Copy – Thank you to Titan Books
Brian De Palma & Susan Lehman, Are Snakes Necessary? (Hard Case Crime, 2020) Hardback, 240 pages.