“Are Snakes Necessary” Dead-On De Palma, For Better or Worse

“Are Snakes Necessary?”: Dead-On De Palma, For Better or Worse

On the cover of “Are Snakes Necessary?”, the thriller authored by legendary director Brian De Palma (co-written with Susan Lehman), there’s a blurb that many a noir writer would commit literal murder for: Martin Scorsese announcing that this book is “like having a new Brian De Palma picture.”

As a blurb, it’s dead-on, and therein lies the rub: If you’re a fan of De Palma’s cinematic work, this book may very well scratch that itch for another thriller from the maestro, albeit in a totally different format. If you’re one of those folks who dislikes the director’s hothouse Hitchcock homages, then you’re no doubt going to roll your eyes as the book trots out pretty much every single De Palma trope of the past 45 years.

Psychosexual shenanigans? Check. Political malfeasance? Check. Unscrupulous people doing their level best to one-up each other? Check. Knife deaths? Check.

Hitchcock-style tumble from a really tall, internationally famous landmark? Oh yeah, big check. Not to spoil too much, but a climactic incident “happens in that funny slow-motion way that events unfold in the heat of certain moments,” to quote the narration directly.

It’s like De Palma is attempting to do in print what he’s done so notably in some of his most famous films (the train-station shootout in “The Untouchables,” the cross-action finale of “Raising Cain”); the paragraphs become individual shots, the action so clear you could storyboard it.

Indeed, if there’s one minor quibble to make with the book, it’s the pacing. Within chapters, the narrative will suddenly jump to that night, or even a few weeks later; it would work in a movie, where a single cut is all you need to seamlessly suggest that time has elapsed, but it’s jarring in prose.

…it’s like De Palma is attempting to do in print what he’s done so notably in some of his most famous films

For those who grew up watching, re-watching, and generally enjoying De Palma’s films, perhaps the biggest surprise here is the tone. His movies’ characters might be psychologically twisted wrecks, but De Palma always approached pacing, framing, and the other elements of filmmaking with a surgeon’s eye, expertly dialing in his effects. Yet the book’s tone is casual—“folksy” is probably the wrong word to use, but that term hints at its relaxed nature.

This is De Palma echoing Hitchcock yet again, just as he’s done so many times on screen.

At first, I thought that tone was a deliberate callback to Elmore Leonard, because that’s often the first touchpoint when you talk about any sort of crime-fiction prose style that sounds like someone talking to you from the next barstool over. But as I closed the book, another thought hit me: This is De Palma echoing Hitchcock yet again, just as he’s done so many times on screen.

For those who don’t remember, Hitchcock used to step in front of the camera to introduce segments of his television show, “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.” Hitch had a great voice—casual, gentle as he explained the finer points of murder, and funny exactly when he needed to be.

Is it too much of a stretch to suggest that De Palma is trying for something similar here? Or is this just an overreach on the part of the reviewer? In any case, “Are Snakes Necessary” is quintessential De Palma. Your own mileage may vary.

*****

To access Nick Kolakowski’s collection of essays for Mystery Tribune, please visit here.

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