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Book Review: Are Snakes Necessary? by Brian De Palma and Susan Lehman

The front cover of Are Snakes Necessary? (Hard Case Crime, $22.99), the first novel from legendary filmmaker Brian De Palma (co-written with former New York Times editor Susan Lehman), features a quote from no less than Martin Scorsese that reads, “It’s like having a new Brian De Palma film.” While most blurbs of this sort tend to be little more than empty words from a friend doing a favor, this particular one is pretty accurate, though whether they are to be taken as high praise or as a warning will vary from person to person. The book, which was originally published in France in 2018 and is now making its American debut, so thoroughly fits in with De Palma’s cinematic oeuvre that anyone reading it will feel as if their mind’s eye has suddenly been outfitted with a split diopter attachment.

Set in 2016, the book is set around the reelection campaign of Lee Rogers, a senator from Pennsylvania with a raging libido that has not gotten him into serious trouble only through the machinations of his ruthless aide-de-camp and fixer, Barton Brock. One day, while waiting at the airport, he runs into a stewardess he had a fling with years earlier—an encounter that gets a whole lot more interesting for him when he meets Fanny, her 18-year-old political junkie daughter who instantly volunteers her services to Lee as a campaign videographer. Neither Brock nor her mother think is a very good idea, and for largely the same reasons. Nevertheless, Fanny signs on and is soon in the middle of a passionate affair with Lee. She is convinced he loves her and that they have a future together, but is rudely awakened to the fact that a senator in the middle of a political campaign is unlikely to leave his wife—a beloved woman suffering from Parkinson’s disease, no less—for a campaign worker, especially one named Fanny. She does not take this very well, needless to say, and that makes her a liability.

Meanwhile, out in Las Vegas, Elizabeth Diamond, the beautiful and abused trophy wife of wealthy and powerful businessman Bruce Diamond, is having a clandestine romance of her own with Nick Sculley, a once-noted photographer who was briefly famous for a shot he took during the riots in Ferguson. Inevitably, this affair is uncovered, but after Nick and Elizabeth take off to start a new life, Elizabeth insists on making a pit stop and seemingly vanishes into thin air. Despondent, Nick goes off to Paris for a new job while trying to figure out what happened to Elizabeth. How these two disparate plot threads come together will be left for readers to discover on their own, except to note that, perhaps not surprisingly (this is a De Palma narrative, after all) it involves both a trip to Paris and the specter of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo.” But this time, it's in the form of the production of a French-based remake that ends up playing a key part in the proceedings.

Those may be the most obvious links between this book and De Palma’s cinematic output, but they are by no means the only ones. From the way that it freely mixes numerous political scandals in the manner that the JFK assassination and Chappaquiddick helped to inspire his 1981 masterpiece “Blow Out,” to the use of favorite narrative tropes and numerous cinematic allusions (even the title is a vaguely obscure reference to a book that Henry Fonda was reading in “The Lady Eve”) throughout, Are Snakes Necessary? is so obviously a De Palma creation, one in the vein of such original works as “Dressed to Kill,” “Blow Out” and “Femme Fatale” that if it had been published under a pseudonym, readers versed in his work would have figured out who wrote it in an instant. Fans will no doubt relish all the things in it that they have come to know and love from his films—the caustic, cynical wit, the audacious storytelling, and a wild finale that practically unfolds in slow-motion on the page, in the best possible way.

Those not as enthralled by De Palma’s legacy may be a little more suspicious of a book written by a filmmaker who is primarily renowned for his visual style and whose plots have not always held up to scrutiny from a logical or dramatic standpoint. Yes, there are a couple of points when the cheerfully pulpy prose gets a little too purple for its own good—at one point, Fanny’s breasts are parenthetically described as “(firm, peach shape),” which is pushing it even for a character already named Fanny—and there a couple of instances where the book seems to be drifting into Elmore Leonard territory, which one should probably avoid doing at all unless they are actually Elmore Leonard. And while politics are not exactly at the forefront of the story, some readers may be a bit disconcerted that a book based in that particular milieu would make absolutely no reference at all to what else was happening on the American political scene as a whole circa 2016.

For the most part, however, Are Snakes Necessary? is cleanly written, moves like a shot (most people will probably be able to read it in the same amount of time that it would have taken to watch it if it had been a movie) and does an effective job of recounting its alternately lurid and loony story. In fact, book's only real downside is the fact that De Palma presumably will not be making a movie version of it—a shame, because the climax could have easily gone down as one of the most eye-popping extended sequences of his entire career. This may prove to be nothing more than a lark in De Palma’s career, but it is nevertheless a hugely entertaining one.

To purchase your copy of Are Snakes Necessary?, click here.

Peter Sobczynski

A moderately insightful critic, full-on Swiftie and all-around bon vivant, Peter Sobczynski, in addition to his work at this site, is also a contributor to The Spool and can be heard weekly discussing new Blu-Ray releases on the Movie Madness podcast on the Now Playing network.

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