A Book Review by Ali Moosavi.
My guess is that co-writer Lehman would have been at ease with sections dealing with the press and politics, while the sex and murder are products of De Palma’s imagination.”
At the ripe old age of 79, that best known disciple of Hitchcock, Brian De Palma, master of the Grand Guignol, has produced his first novel, Are Snakes Necessary? (Hard Case Crime, 2020). His novel belongs to the John Grisham/Harlan Coben class of page turners designed for beach reading in the summer. It is a fast-moving story of dirty politics, sex, murder, incest; in other words, the usual ingredients of many De Palma movies.
There is the senator running for re-election, his Parkinson afflicted wife, his mistresses, his ruthless Mr. Fix-It, the press photographer somehow caught up in the mix and a few other sundry characters. De Palma has a co-writer on this novel; Susan Lehman, a former editor of the New York Times and an attorney by training. It has always been a source of interest to me that in books co-written by a celebrity author and a professional hack, how much each of them has contributed to the final product. My guess is that Lehman would have been at ease with sections dealing with the press and politics, while the sex and murder are products of De Palma’s imagination.
Having read my fair share of pulp fiction, crime potboilers and Harold Robbins-style trashy novels dealing with Beautiful People wearing beautiful things in beautiful places, I would say that De Palma, on this evidence is as good, and no better, than most of the writers working in this genre, from John Grisham to Robert Ludlum; from Arthur Hailey to David Baldacci. The usual name droppings are there in abundance: men in this story wear John Lobb shoes and Gucci loafers, sign with Mont Blanc fountain pen and give Patek Phillipe watches as gifts; while the women wear Louboutain and Jimmy Choo shoes, have Louis Vuitton handbags and Rimona luggage. De Palma does not, however, belong to the top table of crime writing, on which the likes of Raymond Chandler sit. Compare the beginning of Little Sister by Chandler,
“The pebbled glass door panel is lettered in flaked black paint: “Philip Marlowe . . . Investigations.” It is a reasonably shabby door at the end of a reasonably shabby corridor in the sort of building that was new about the year the all-tile bathroom became the basis of civilization.” to how De Palma and Lehman begin their story, “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.”
Not quite in the same league.
De Palma is, first and foremost, a visual artist. His films are mainly remembered for their visual impact rather than the scintillating dialogue. We remember Carrie, covered in blood, walking through fire; the Potemkin style Union Station steps scene in The Untouchables (1987), the Vertigo-influenced chase across the tiled roof in his latest, Domino (2019). Occasionally, he has a writer like Oliver Stone or David Mamet and actors of the caliber of Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, and then both the image and the words become memorable; for instance, “say hello to my little friend!” (Pacino’s Tony Montana welcoming the intruders to his mansion with a grenade launcher in Scarface (1983), written by Stone) and “A man becomes preeminent, he’s expected to have enthusiasms. Enthusiasms, enthusiasms… What are mine? What draws my admiration? What is that which gives me joy? Baseball! A man stands alone at the plate. This is the time for what? For individual achievement. There he stands alone. But in the field, what? Part of a team. Teamwork.” (De Niro’s Al Capone as he smashes a baseball bat on the head of one of his henchmen in The Untouchables, written by Mamet.)
Are Snakes Necessary mixes some real-life events, such as the Ferguson riots, with some fictionalizing. De Palma also sends himself up. The photographer, who is sent to Paris to cover the filming of a remake of Hitchcock’s Vertigo, muses “what a great idea, remake one of the most revered pictures in cinema history,” which is exactly what De Palma did with Obsession (1976).
De Palma films are also noted for having one or two of his signature scenes. These are highly visual, emotional, with minimal dialogue and often accompanied by lush, romantic music. Examples include the aforementioned prom scene in Carrie (1976) and the Union Station steps scene in The Untouchables (1987). While reading Are Snakes Necessary? I was also looking to see if there is potentially such a scene in the book. Indeed, there is, and it comes towards the end. Since the original novel of Vertigo was written by a couple of French writers, the makers of the French remake of Vertigo in the book have a grand idea. Why not set the final scene of the movie on top of the Eiffel Tower? One can just imagine what De Palma would do with this scene. Bodies moving in slow motion to the lush music of Pino Donaggio against spectacular scenery in a scene ripe with suspense and emotion.
If you are looking for a page turner to read while sunbathing by the pool, then I can heartily recommend Are Snakes Necessary? It certainly exceeded my expectations and I hope that De Palma now gets to make the movie version.
Ali Moosavi has worked in documentary television and has written for Film Magazine (Iran), Cine-Eye (London), and Film International (Sweden). He contributed to the second volume of the The Directory of World Cinema: Iran (Intellect, 2015).