Are Snakes Necessary

Review by C.J. Bunce

The director of The Untouchables, Scarface, Carrie, and Mission: Impossible and writer/director of screenplays for more than a dozen noir thriller films including Body Double, Blow Out, Dressed to Kill, Obsession, and Femme Fatale has penned his first novel.  Along with former New York Times editor Susan Lehman, celebrated movie writer/director Brian De Palma delves into a story of intrigue behind a fictional 2016 senatorial campaign in the new political thriller Are Snakes Necessary? arriving in two weeks from Hard Case Crime.  The modern pulp noir follows intersecting characters in a smarmy world of cheating, lying, and murder, from Las Vegas to Washington to Paris.

A senator and his majordomo encounter a woman from the senator’s past at an airport, and the senator is eager to welcome her daughter as an intern to document his campaign.  Meanwhile, a struggling photographer gets mixed up with the trophy wife of a wealthy businessman in Las Vegas.  Two married couples–a cheating wife and a cheating husband–the wife a victim of spousal abuse seeking to get out, and a politician with a sick wife staking out his next conquest.  And somehow they all come together during a remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, based more toward the underlying novel, which was set in France (I reviewed the novel a few weeks ago here at borg).

In a way Are Snakes Necessary? is De Palma taking a stab at doing his own play on Alfred Hitchcock and Roman Polanski.  Fans of The Girl on the Train, Chinatown, State of Play, and the sleazier shelf of 1970s era pulp crime novels will go for this one, along with fans of De Palma’s films.  More about 20th century sexual politics than 21st century sexual politics and less about a political campaign, the snakes in the title are the men who continue to get away with manipulation, lies, and sometimes murder.

The setting and players will be familiar to readers of Elmore Leonard–it’s the kind of pulp crime story where men are maulers and women only survive if they’re willing to kill–the kind of story De Palma or Tarentino would put on the big screen, along with the corresponding sex, language, and violence.  Almost as an aside, the authors slip in a character something like Melanie in Leonard’s The Switch and Rum Punch, a woman fed-up with her lot who knows herself and finds her way into an off-the-wall revenge plot.  The book also has that taste of so many airplane-based movies in the 1970s with those relationships tied to travel, like passengers flirting, something that hasn’t been a go-to plot element for a while.

Are Snakes Necessary? is full of highs and lows–highs in its surprises, lows in its overall familiar tropes of the genre.  Tightly written, the story may also seem a bit thin and straightforward, although the authors pack a handful of twists into their tale, including a vivid climactic sequence at the Eiffel Tower clearly written for the screen, which may justify a read all by itself.  The authors reveal the scene via a photographer that plays out like a zoetrope–a really nice effect.  In fact the entire novel feels like it could have been a screenplay adapted into novel form.

Boasting another fantastic painted cover by artist Paul Mann, Are Snakes Necessary? is available now for pre-order here at Amazon, one of the few Hard Case Crime novels debuting in a hardcover edition.  Its arrival date is slated for March 17.