Jordan Harper’s novel is the next great L.A. noir. Just don’t call it a #MeToo story

After his “L.A. Confidential” CBS adaptation was dropped, Jordan Harper had a revelation: “I was ready to get into the world of Los Angeles, the world of Hollywood, the world of power.”

(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

It’s where John Belushi overdosed, Jim Morrison cracked his skull, fashion icon Helmut Newton fatally crashed his car and countless celebrities have had extramarital affairs. Now Jordan Harper is adding another anecdote to the fabled history of the Chateau Marmont.

In the opening pages of Harper’s stunning new crime saga, “Everybody Knows,” Mae Pruett is summoned to the hotel to put out a fire. Although conflagrations abound in Harper’s sprawling neo-noir, Mae works for a crisis management firm that makes scandals disappear. Most public relations companies are eager to get their clients’ names in the media, but Mae is a fixer for a black-bag PR firm. That means it’s her job to keep them out.

Mae’s client, hard-partying 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’s thinking about. Hannah is wearing too-big sunglasses in a dark room. The job is under those glasses.” There are bigger problems afoot: Someone is setting fire to homeless encampments; a cabal of predators is targeting ing?nues. The action moves from everyday Hollywood sleaze to a darker conspiracy after Mae’s boss is murdered in a seemingly random shooting — which she suspects is anything but. Her investigation leads to some of the most secretive and ruthless men in the city.

The novel’s scope is expansive, and so is the buzz that comes trailing it. Harper’s third book has racked up an impressive number of blurbs from some of the biggest names in contemporary crime fiction, from local favorite Steph Cha to rising national star S.A. Cosby. Mystery lion Michael Connelly calls “Everybody Knows” “the book everybody’s been waiting for.”

At a coffee shop just down the street from the Chateau, Harper appears unfazed by all the attention. His earthy demeanor is a product of his Midwestern roots, his years as a Hollywood scriptwriter and his long journey to the Sunset Strip.

But few are immune to the lore of the Chateau, and Harper told me the hotel isn’t just the setting for the first scene; it’s also where that scene was written. Using hotel stationery with his name on it, Harper set down the rough draft of the opening chapter during a short stay. “It was a very deliberate ritual,” Harper confessed. “It was also very expensive.”

The Chateau Marmont is a long way from the Ozarks, where Harper grew up. Long before his dream of working in Hollywood took shape, he worked as an advertising copywriter in St. Louis before switching hats to write and edit music reviews at the Riverfront Times. A subsequent move to New York prompted another career shift — this time to film critic, which Harper admitted he wasn’t very good at. “I started to detect in myself the worst kind of film criticism you 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 pulpy new online magazine for crime fiction created by Todd Robinson. “He was so important to my generation of crime writers,” Harper said of Robinson. “S.A. Cosby, Rob Hart, Alex Segura — a lot of people got published in Thuglit.”

(Ecco Press)

Harper moved yet again — this time to L.A. — and his life took a Hollywood turn. He adapted one of his short stories into a spec script, which gained him entry into the Warner Bros. Television Workshop. The program trained Harper to write for television and set him up with interviews. He was hired, after his second meeting, by Bruno Heller, who was starting Season 2 of CBS’ “The Mentalist.” Over six years on the show, Harper went from being a staff writer to co-writing the finale. “That’s why it’s so hard for me to tell people who want to break into Hollywood how to do it,” 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” on the projects they worked on together. She was impressed, she said in a phone call, by his extensive knowledge of crime and a library that included FBI manuals, court transcripts and gang lore. “He eats that for breakfast,” Cutter said.

Harper’s fiction writing moved at a slower pace than his career in television. He shelved the first novel he wrote and self-published a collection of gritty short stories. This attracted the attention of the 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,” that won the 2018 Edgar Award for best first novel by an American author.

Cosby was an instant fan. “I would put ‘She Rides Shotgun’ up against anything written in the last 25 to 30 years,” said the acclaimed Virginia novelist. “It’s that good.”

Harper’s passions for page and screen collided when he got the opportunity to adapt Ellroy’s “L.A. Confidential” for CBS. This was a dream project for Harper, a longtime admirer of Ellroy’s work.

“I really think that what he does better than almost anybody,” Harper said, “is create this dream world that is bigger and louder than the real world and is therefore more accurate in some ways, particularly when you’re talking about 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.

“I think realism fails to capture the essence of Los Angeles,” says Jordan Harper, explaining his admiration of James Ellroy and the inspiration for his novel “Everybody Knows.”

(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Unfortunately the series wasn’t 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 enjoying 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 had said everything I had to say about poor white criminals. It was starting to feel dishonest. … I was ready to get into 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 a wholly contemporary story. The dark epic that unfurls in the pages of “Everybody Knows” makes “ripped-from-the-headlines” crime shows seem quaint by comparison. “Reading ‘Everybody Knows’ feels like somebody’s telling you a horrible secret,” Cosby said.

The book is filled with private-security mercenaries, sheriff’s department deputy gangs, political donors with dangerous drug habits and Hollywood moguls who use their power to satisfy their sexual desires. In “Everybody Knows,” nothing is off the table. What it is not, though, Harper insists, is a #MeToo novel.

“That’s not my story to tell,” Harper said. “There are people like Winnie M Li, whose novel ‘Complicit‘ talks about that specific subject matter, and she does it very well. For me, it was very important to talk about the thing that I was familiar with, which is how power works in Hollywood.”

Ed Brubaker, author of the Reckless series of graphic novels, who is currently collaborating with Harper on a television project, compares Harper’s work to legendary figures in L.A. crime fiction: “‘Everybody Knows’ feels like Chandler crossed with Ellroy but with Michael Connelly’s knowledge of L.A.”

Cosby, who can’t recall a conversation with Harper in which he didn’t make some kind of reference to Ellroy, believes the two writers are more evenly matched than Harper would admit. “I think he’s Ellroy’s peer,” Cosby said. “[Harper] writes about California from a panoply of views, whether it’s the dirty white boys in the Inland Empire or the Technicolor Day-Glo dreamscape that is the entertainment industry in Los Angeles.”

For Cosby, it comes down to the way Harper treats his characters. Whether they are uncovering L.A.’s darkest secrets or sitting in traffic, they are always relatable. “He takes these broken people and he puts them through the wringer. He helps them find their humanity in a way that’s not treacly and it’s not saccharine. It’s a hard-earned existential journey.”

“Everybody Knows” is poised to be Harper’s breakout novel. “I feel like everything he does,” Brubaker said, “is going to be a huge bestseller.” Cosby has no doubt big things are in store 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 crime writer.”

Harper, already working on another book featuring characters from “Everybody Knows,” said, “I think I have at least three books” set in this world. It’s been 30 years since Ellroy published “White Jazz,” the final installment of his L.A. Quartet. Have your favorite crime writers found a worthy successor?

Only Harper knows.

Harper will be in conversation with Steph Cha at Stories Books & Cafe at 7 p.m. Jan. 10.

Ruland’s new novel, “Make It Stop,” will be published in April.

 

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