book review

Are Snakes Necessary by Brian DePalma and Susan Lehman

Let’s get a few things out of the way. From what I know about my readership, none of you would like this book. It contains nothing in the way of detection (although surprise and suspense abound). The tone could best be described as luridly trashy, but even that wouldn’t give you a sense of the plot’s sex-leads-to-death ethos. The men are uniformly piggish and the women uniformly naked. One plot thread (of the three) ends in such dreamlike fantasy (with huge stretches of character logic–a stranger told me to throw my laptop into the ocean? Sure.) that I cannot imagine GAD fanatics going along for the ride. Occasionally, the book makes a nod to its film-noir roots:

In another world, one before cancer and surgeon generals, he would light a cigarette, probably Marlboro, and slowly inhale.

But mostly it’s a book of bad people screwing, plotting, and killing. (The title of a future book!)

So now that I’ve told you why you’ll hate it, let’s find out why I liked it. ASN is a screenplay that has been novelized. The first-person POV and the chapter head hopping are not new, but the novel’s insistence on playing as a series of set pieces make it a remarkably visual experience. The scenes are short, the transitions quick, and the backstory terse. By the time you reach the Eiffel Tower (where a French remake of Vertigo is being filmed — oh yeah, it’s that kind of story) you may not even notice the jet-propelled narrative changing to an almost literal description of shots. The plot is suitably twisty.

Thread 1: A philandering Senator (Lee Rogers) begins an affair with a videographer (Fanny Cours) on the campaign trail. Twenty years prior, he had been involved with Fanny’s mother. His wife is currently suffering the initial stages of Parkinson’s. (Swell guy) His fixer Barton Brock is weary of the affair and more than willing to end it by any available means, especially after Fanny falls in love.

Thread 2: Elizabeth Diamond is a bombshell sexpot married to an abusive husband. One day, she meets Nick, a studly photographer who hit it big years ago but now finds himself struggling for inspiration. They carry on a torrid affair until she decides to leave her husband. He brings her to a casino to grab a few things and she vanishes. Despondant, he goes to Paris.

Thread 3: I can’t tell you about thread 3. The first rule of ASN Club is you don’t talk about thread 3.

So, why not film this instead of writing it? (I don’t mean to discount Susan Lehman’s contributions, but it’s almost certain he told her the story and she whipped it into readable shape) The answer sadly, involves the financial burdens of modern cinema. Because DePalma’s eclecticism doesn’t translate to huge box-office returns (or any in some cases), he has made very few films in the last twenty years. It’s a horrible loss for cinema. Here’s someone who actually knows how to put a film together writing a novel. It’s not right.

The final set-piece on the Tower, the controlled horror when the mother reveals her secret, and the (yes) naked swim in the ocean whilst planning murder are all wonderful sequences that should be on a big screen. I’d list all the DePalma hallmarks, but this review would go on far too long. I’ll just say the dreamy malevolence of his best films’ finales and his voyeuristic obsessions are well represented here.

As I focus my blog on detective fiction, I can’t in good faith recommend ASN. However, I think my review will tell you if you want to read it. Basically, if you like DePalma, you’ll like this. I do and did.

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