A few days have passed since I finished Brian DePalma and Susan Lehman’s Are Snakes Necessary? (Hard Case Crime, 2020), but I’m still trying to decide if I enjoyed it or (if this is possible) actually hated it. Since I blew through the book in a couple evenings, I’ll have to concede that it was a fast and fun read. But that concession doesn’t mean there wasn’t something about this novel that still bothers me.
Not really a mystery and only fitting ‘crime fiction’ if you set very broad genre parameters, Are Snakes Necessary? is a somewhat neo-noirish thriller of sorts, rolling out a seemingly unrelated cast of largely unsavory characters whose stories will intertwine through a series of sometimes logical and sometimes implausible coincidences. A sleazy political consultant hires a desperate fast food worker to set up an incumbent Senator with photos of a hotel room tryst. A failed photojournalist hooks up with a Las Vegas casino maven’s trophy wife. A flight attendant is horrified to learn her ambitious daughter has not only dropped out of college to join a political campaign but is joining the candidate (her own one-time lover) in bed as well. Throw in a retiring advice columnist, the Senator’s dying spouse and an abused Philadelphia housewife, and still everything will manage to come full circle as these characters’ stories converge in the novel’s closing mini-chapters, with multiple people dying (not always the ones who deserve it), some in Hitchcock-homage fashion (no surprise there, with DePalma at work).
In describing his writing style, Elmore Leonard famously said “I try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip”. Apparently, DePalma and Lehman took this advice seriously, but maybe a bit too much, and that’s what troubled me about Are Snakes Necessary? Oh, it’s an entertaining ‘page turner’. But is it really a novel? Frankly, I’m not sure.
The fact is, the book reads more like a story treatment, elaborate synopsis or an unproduced DePalma screenplay fleshed out into book form by Lehman. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, only that I’m pretty sure that if an unknown submitted this to an agent or editor, they’d be told to come back once they’d actually written the novel.
All that said, don’t be turned off by my own mixed feelings. The Hard Case Crime series rarely has a miss, even if it occasionally strays from its original mission of publishing long forgotten mysteries and hard-boiled crime fiction from the postwar paperback originals heyday and seems all too ready to go to press when there’s a well-known name with some marquee value to put on the cover (an understandable business decision). So, if you’d like a quick, entertaining read peopled by mostly unpleasant but-no-less intriguing characters, Are Snakes Necessary? will definitely keep you occupied for an evening or two. Arrange a curbside pickup from your local indie like I did, and see what you think. Is it a fast-paced plot-driven novel thoroughly purged of indulgent writerly fluff? Or is it an old screenplay dusted off by DePalma and finessed into something like a novel by Lehman?
Either way, it still is a fun read.