The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Brian De Palma and Susan Lehman deliver a silly, fun pastiche of hard-boiled crime fiction

Nude photos are used to entrap a Senate candidate in the first 10 pages of “Are Snakes Necessary?” and it only gets wilder from there. No surprise, perhaps, given that it’s co-authored by Brian De Palma, director of “Carrie” and “Dressed To Kill,” and a notorious maestro of violent sexploitation. Written in collaboration with editor-journalist Susan Lehman and first published in France in 2018, this trashy neo-noir thriller riffs on psychosexual obsessions that will be familiar to fans of De Palma’s movies. Pitched in style somewhere between a film treatment and tabloid true crime, this debut novel is silly and uneven, sure, but it’s also fun, a pastiche of hard-boiled crime fiction that doesn’t scrimp on the lurid pleasures of the genre.

Sen. Lee Rogers, the “Hunk of the Hill,” a man gifted with “Columbia Law School dazzle” but compromised by a “zipper problem,” is running for reelection in Pennsylvania. Fanny Cours, an 18-year-old videographer “in the full flush of carnality” and the daughter of an old flame of Rogers, is determined to join the senator’s campaign. Beefing up the supporting cast are ruthless campaign heavy Barton Brock, who’ll do anything it takes to protect his candidate; Nick Sculley, a photographer always on the lookout for a story; and Elizabeth de Carlo (or is it Diamond? or Black?), a jailbird-turned-agony aunt who’ll play anyone for anything. There are also a $5 million Basquiat, a remake of “Vertigo” and some implausible coincidences in the mix.

Jean-Luc Godard maintains, perhaps waggishly, that film tells the truth 24 times a second. De Palma, though, believes the opposite, and “Are Snakes Necessary?” litigates the competing claims. De Palma has spent a lifetime exploring the metaphysics of recording technology and of scopophilia, showing us how observation can deceive as much as it reveals. He has shown us the gaze, the camera lens, the telescope as mediums not just of looking but of participating, of penetrating. Think of “Body Double,” De Palma’s “Rear Window”/“Vertigo” remix, in which Craig Wasson’s voyeur becomes an accidental stooge in a murder case. Or of “Blow Out,” whose central crime is exposed when John Travolta syncs an audio recording with film footage of an accident. In both cases, the passive observer becomes the active protagonist.

Likewise Fanny, who shoots webisodes for the Rogers campaign aimed at revealing the real senator, turns out to be “the antithesis of the fly on the wall.” Fanny comes straight from the Godard school: Through her video work, she says, “I want to see, really see, the truth behind things. The naked truth.” Her more jaded colleagues are skeptical. “The camera is a come-on,” she’s told. “People instinctively flirt with it.” And sure enough, Fanny’s soon involved with Rogers and the campaign videos are starting to tell the wrong story: “Every time he looks towards the camera he’s batting his eyelashes,” her friend points out. Before long, the sinister Brock decides that something must be done about the problem intern.

Many crime writers, notably Elmore Leonard, have found ways of updating the hard-boiled genre while retaining its vim and demotic panache. De Palma and Lehman, while giving their story a conspicuously contemporary setting (Twitter, iPhones, 9/11, Ferguson), have aimed less at modernizing than simply transplanting its styles and tropes to the 21st century. As pastiche, this partly works, but it may have a distancing effect on readers.

“Her stiff yellow apron barely contains her voluptuous curves,” we’re told when we first meet Elizabeth de Carlo, the most fatale of the book’s femmes — and while she may in fact turn out to be an agent of violent female empowerment, there’s something retrogressive about her presentation. Perhaps a hint of cool irony can be detected here that some readers will enjoy, but it feels more like an opportunity missed.

The book’s chauvinistic dialogue is another sticking point. While it’s obviously an intentional stylistic effect, it feels anachronistic to see women labeled “doll” and “kid,” and it’s hard for characters to breathe when corseted by lines like “Now, be a good girl and get dressed.” Elsewhere, melodramatic overtones threaten to tip some scenes into the absurd: “This is a problem for me, Senator,” says Fanny at one point. “It’s a problem because you are married — to someone else.” It certainly lacks Raymond Chandler’s combative dazzle or the stylish malevolence of a James Ellroy.

Still, the chapters zip by with the pace and economy of scenes in a movie, and there are enough good jokes — notably the Chekhovian use of a bottle of perfume named “Déjà Vu!” — and plot twists to pass the time guiltily enough.

Charles Arrowsmith is based in New York and writes about books, films and music.

By Brian De Palma and Susan Lehman

Hard Case Crime. 224 pp. $22.99.

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