On the shelf
By Jordan Harper
Mulholland: 352 pages, $28
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This is where John Belushi overdosed, Jim Morrison cracked his skull, fashion icon Helmut Newton was killed in a car accident, and countless celebrities have had extramarital affairs. Now Jordan Harper adds another anecdote to the storied history of Chateau Marmont.
In the opening pages of Harper’s stunning new crime saga, Everybody Knows, Mae Pruett is called to the hotel to put out a fire. Though there are plenty of firebrands in Harper’s sprawling neo-noir, Mae works for a crisis management firm that makes scandals disappear. Most PR firms strive to get their clients’ names in the media, but Mae is a fixer for a black PR firm. That means it’s your job to keep them away.
Mae’s client, party-happy young starlet Hannah Heard, has a problem. “Red wine stains on her orange Celine hoodie – another thousand dollars down the drain. But it’s the sunglasses that Mae thinks about. Hannah wears oversized sunglasses in a dark room. The job is under those glasses.” There are bigger problems: someone is setting fire to homeless camps; A cabal of predators are targeting the natives. The plot moves from the everyday Hollywood eyesore to a darker conspiracy after Mae’s boss is murdered in what appears to be a random shootout – which, according to her, is far from the case. Her investigations lead to some of the most mysterious and ruthless men in town.
The scope of the novel is wide, as is the excitement that follows it. Harper’s third book has collected an impressive array of blurbs from some of the biggest names in contemporary crime fiction, from local favorite Steph Cha to rising national star SA Cosby. Mysterious Leo Michael Connelly calls Everybody Knows “the book everyone’s been waiting for”.
At a café just down the road from the chateau, Harper seems unfazed by all the attention. His down-to-earth nature is a product of his Midwestern roots, his years as a screenwriter in Hollywood, and his long journey to the Sunset Strip.
But few are immune to the history of the chateau, and Harper told me the hotel wasn’t just the setting for the first scene; This scene was also written there. Using hotel stationery with his name on it, Harper laid down the rough draft of the opening chapter during a brief stay. “It was a very conscious ritual,” Harper admitted. “It was also very expensive.”
The Chateau Marmont is a far cry from the Ozarks where Harper grew up. Long before his dream of working in Hollywood took shape, he worked as a copywriter in St. Louis before switching hats to write and edit music reviews at the Riverfront Times. A subsequent move to New York led to another career change – this time to film critic, in which Harper admitted he wasn’t very good. “I was beginning to recognize in myself the worst kind of film criticism one can do, which is jealous film criticism.”
The death of his grandfather, “a real Ozarks badass” who worked as a prison guard and made knives in his spare time, awakened something in Harper. He wrote a thinly veiled short story about the man; Johnny Cash Is Dead found a home in Thuglit, a goofy new online crime fiction magazine created by Todd Robinson. “He was so important to my generation of crime writers,” Harper said of Robinson. “SA Cosby, Rob Hart, Alex Segura – a lot of people were published in Thuglit.”
Harper moved again – this time to LA – and his life took a Hollywood turn. He adapted one of his short stories into a special screenplay, which earned him entry into the Warner Bros. Television Workshop. The program trained Harper to write for television and provided him with interviews. He was hired after his second meeting by Bruno Heller, who started the second season of CBS’ The Mentalist. During the six years on the show, Harper went from being a staff writer to co-writing the finale. “That’s why I have such a hard time telling people who want to break into Hollywood,” Harper admitted, “because I won the lottery.”
Rebecca Cutter, a writer, producer, and showrunner who rose through the ranks with Harper, called him “the MVP of the room” in reference to the projects they’ve worked on together. She was impressed, she said in a phone call, with his vast knowledge of crime and a library that included FBI handbooks, court transcripts and gang histories. “He eats that for breakfast,” Cutter said.
Harper’s fiction writing moved more slowly than his television career. He put aside the first novel he wrote and self-published a collection of dark short stories. This caught the attention of literary agent Nat Sobel, who has represented some of the biggest names in crime fiction, including Eddie Bunker, Joseph Wambaugh and James Ellroy.
Sobel got Harper a two-book deal with Ecco for the collection Love and Other Wounds and a violent fever dream of a novel, She Rides Shotgun, which won the 2018 Edgar Award for Best First Novel by an American Author.
Cosby was an instant fan. “I would compare ‘She Rides Shotgun’ to anything written in the last 25 to 30 years,” said the acclaimed Virginia writer. “It is so good.”
Harper’s passion for page and screen collided when he got the opportunity to adapt Ellroy’s LA Confidential for CBS. This was a dream project for Harper, a longtime admirer of Ellroy’s work.
“I really think he’s better than almost anyone,” Harper said, “at creating this dream world that’s bigger and louder than the real world and therefore more accurate in some ways, especially when it comes to things like America or Los Angeles. I think realism fails to capture the essence of Los Angeles.”
How much does Harper admire Ellroy? He named his dog after him.
Unfortunately, the series didn’t get picked up, but after spending all that time in Ellroy’s head, Harper had an epiphany: he was an Angeleno now. Many of the writers who find success with grit lit or country noir — including Cosby, Eli Cranor, and Daniel Woodrell — are still in the places they write about. Harper, on the other hand, “felt like I said everything I had to say about poor white criminals. It was starting to feel dishonest. … I was ready to enter the world of Los Angeles, the world of Hollywood, the world of power.”
In other words, the world of Ellroy. But unlike his idol, who often dissects periods from the past, Harper wanted to tell an entirely contemporary story. The somber epic that unfolds within the pages of Everybody Knows makes “taken from the headlines” crime series quaint by comparison. “Reading ‘Everybody Knows’ feels like someone is telling you a terrible secret,” Cosby said.
The book is full of private security mercenaries, deputy sheriff’s department gangs, political donors with dangerous drug habits, and Hollywood moguls who use their power to gratify their sexual desires. With “Everybody Knows” nothing is off the table. However, what it isn’t, Harper points out, is a #MeToo novel.
“That’s not my story,” Harper said. “There are people like Winnie M Li who, in her novel Complicit, tackle this very subject, and they do it very well. It was very important for me to talk about what I’m familiar with, which is how power works in Hollywood.”
Reckless graphic novel writer Ed Brubaker, who is currently collaborating with Harper on a television project, likens Harper’s work to iconic characters from LA crime fiction: “‘Everybody Knows’ feels like Chandler is linked to Ellroy, but with Michael Connelly’s knowledge crossed from LA”
Cosby, who cannot recall a conversation with Harper in which he did not refer to Ellroy, believes the two authors are more equal than Harper would admit. “I think he’s Ellroy’s colleague,” Cosby said. “[Harper] writes about California from a variety of perspectives, be it the dirty white boys of the Inland Empire or the Technicolor day-glo dreamscape of Los Angeles entertainment.”
For Cosby, what matters is how Harper treats his characters. Whether they’re uncovering LA’s darkest secrets or sitting in traffic, they’re always identifiable. “He takes these broken people and puts them through the wringer. He helps them find their humanity in a way that is neither tart nor sugary. It’s a hard-earned existential journey.”
Everybody Knows is poised to become Harper’s novel. “I have a feeling that whatever he does,” Brubaker said, “is going to be a huge bestseller.” Cosby has no doubt that great things lie ahead for his friend. “Honestly I think he’s underrated as a writer and I don’t know why because he’s your favorite crime writer’s favorite.”
Harper, who is already working on another book featuring characters from Everyone Knows, said, “I think I have at least three books” set in this world. It’s been 30 years since Ellroy released “White Jazz,” the final part of his LA Quartet. Have your favorite crime writers found a worthy successor?
Only Harper knows.
Harper will be speaking with Steph Cha at Stories Books & Cafe on January 10 at 7pm.
Ruland’s new novel “Make It Stop” will be published in April.
https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/books/story/2023-01-05/jordan-harper-everybody-knows Jordan Harper’s Everybody Knows is the next big Hollywood noir