Brian De Palma is a divisive filmmaker whose directorial efforts are at times a roller coaster ride of critical and commercial accolades. Before the likes of It, Pet Sematary, The Shining and Shawshank, De Palma helped launch Stephen King as a household name with the success of his film adaptation of Carrie (starring Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie). In the years that would follow, De Palma would garner astronomical cult success with blockbuster hits such as Scarface and The Untouchables; however, for each cinematic hit there’d be several film flops, all culminating with the year 2000’s Mission to Mars. A lavish, ambitious and expensive homage to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Mission to Mars regrettably tanked at the box-office. De Palma would continue to make more modestly budgeted thrillers such as Femme Fetal and The Black Dahlia, however these latter cinematic efforts were oft met with ambivalence from the average filmgoer.
All considered, it’s in that space between De Palma’s hits (e.g. Carlito’s Way) and De Palma’s misses (Bonfire of the Vanities) that the director truly thrives. Films such as Sisters, Dressed to Kill and, my personal favorite, Blow Out (a neo-noir political thriller that serves as a loose retelling of Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 classic Blowup) represent De Palma in all his deviant cinematic glory. Films that place their respective protagonists amidst danger, criminal intrigue and side orders of sleaze. It’s precisely in this space that Brian De Palma’s debut novel, Are Snakes Necessary?, rightfully belongs.
Elizabeth deCarlo is at odds with her jealous and controlling tycoon husband Bruce Diamond, owner of the Majestic Casino, the Vegas Today tabloid and several Nevada area hotels. But Elizabeth can manage. Bruce is not the first poisonous power player she’s had to contend with. Sometime prior, in the midst of fending off her landlord and inevitable eviction, Elizabeth was recruited by senatorial assistant Barton Brock and subsequently screwed over in a series of bureaucratic double-crosses. Not unlike Karl Rove, or the more recent Roger Stone, Brock is a political fixer. He has little to no remorse when resorting to any number of unsavory business tactics as he works the campaign trail for incumbent Pennsylvania Senator running for re-election, Lee Rogers. Rogers, himself an unsavory lech, needs all the fixing he can afford following his illicit affair with a former flames fresh-faced daughter, Fanny Cours.
Fanny, a videographer, political buff and aspiring Barnard academic became a tad lovelorn for her adulterous employer, but that’s just the frying pan and poor Fanny must soon face the fire. Throw in Nick Sculley, a washed up event photographer whose glory days covering civil unrest in Ferguson, Missouri are long behind him, as well as a motley crew of questionable characters and locals that span from Pennsylvania to Paris, and Are Snakes Necessary? evolves into a thoroughly thought-provoking thriller that’ll transport its reader across the wider Western Hemisphere.
While some of De Palma’s signature Cinemax After Dark qualities (represented in films such as Body Double) are indeed on showcase here, the novel is reined in from going hardcore harlequin; perhaps at the creative behest of the books co-author, Susan Lehman. Lehman is a former New York Times editor and non-fiction ghost writer whose extensive contributor credentials include publications such as The Times, The Atlantic, The New Yorker, The Washington Post, Vogue and SPY Magazine. De Palma and Lehman’s latest book is published by Hard Case Crime, a publishing imprint that specializes in hardboiled noir fiction as told by prominent storytellers within the biz. Michael Crichton’s Grave Descend and Stephen King’s Colorado Kid have both been published under the imprint.
Some prominent names such as De Palma contemporary Martin Scorsese have already begun to sing Snakes’ praises. With statements such as “it’s like having a new Brian De Palma picture,” one might say Scorsese finds the book to be more apropos of “cinema” than the latest Avengers film. Screenwriter/Spielberg right-hand man David Koepp as well as American Psycho author Brett Easton Ellis also give glowing endorsements to the book, and who am I to disagree? Despite a few forced modernisms that reek of an older author attempting to sound hip and relevant (repeat references to social media, use of text common initialisms such as “WTF,” etc.), De Palma (with the aid of Lehman) rather successfully recaptures all his ‘80s crime caper glory.
It’s easy to picture former De Palma muse Nancy Allen as either Elizabeth or Fanny, or frequent film collaborator John Travolta in the Nick Sculley role. Like Blow Out, Are Snakes Necessary? combines conspiracy and political intrigue with Hollywood hubris. Replete with Hitchcock refs, violence and the thinnest veneer of sleaze, acolytes of De Palma’s work would be remiss not to add a copy of Are Snakes Necessary? to their pulp fiction libraries.