Jordan Harper’s novel is the next big Los Angeles noir. Just don’t call it a #MeToo story

A man stands in front of a mural on the Sunset Strip.

After his CBS adaptation “LA Confidential” was dropped, Jordan Harper had a revelation: “I was ready to go into the world of Los Angeles, the world of Hollywood, the world of power.” (Mel Melcon/Los Angeles Times)

This is where John Belushi overdosed, Jim Morrison had his skull cracked, fashion icon Helmut Newton crashed his car to his death, and countless celebrities had extramarital affairs. Now Jordan Harper adds another anecdote to the legendary history of the Chateau Marmont.

In the first pages of Harper’s incredible new detective saga, “Everybody Knows”, Mae Pruett is summoned to the hotel to put out a fire. Though conflagrations abound in Harper’s sprawling neo-noir, Mae works for a crisis management firm that makes scandals disappear. Most PR firms are eager to get their clients’ names in the media, but Mae is a fixer for a PR firm. Which means it’s her job to keep them out.

Mae’s client, party starlet Hannah Heard, has a problem. “Red wine stains on her orange Celine sweatshirt: another thousand dollars down the drain. But it’s the sunglasses Mae is thinking about. Hannah wears oversized sunglasses in a dark room. The work is under those glasses. There are bigger problems afoot: Someone is setting fire to homeless encampments; a cabal of predators target the naïve. The action shifts from the everyday Hollywood 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 town.

The scope of the novel is broad, and so is the buzz that comes with it. Harper’s third book amassed an impressive number of blurbs from some of the biggest names in contemporary crime fiction, from local favorite Steph Cha to national rising star SA Cosby. Mysterious lion Michael Connelly calls “Everybody Knows” “the book everyone has been waiting for.”

At a café down the street from the Chateau, Harper doesn’t seem fazed by all the attention. His down-to-earth demeanor is a product of his Midwestern roots, his years as a Hollywood screenwriter, and his long journey to the Sunset Strip.

But few are immune to the lore of the castle, 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 her name on it, Harper drafted 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 led to another career change, 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 her grandfather, “a real badass from the Ozarks” who worked as a prison guard and made knives in his spare time, awakened something in Harper. You have written a thinly veiled tale about the man; “Johnny Cash Is Dead” has found a home in Thuglit, a pulpy new online crime magazine created by Todd Robinson. “He was so important to my generation of mystery writers,” Harper said of Robinson. “SA Cosby, Rob Hart, Alex Segura: A lot of people have been posted on Thuglit.”

Harper moved once again, this time to Los Angeles, and his life took a turn in Hollywood. He adapted one of his short stories into a spec script, which allowed him to enter the Warner Bros. Television Workshop. The program trained Harper in writing for television and set him up with interviews. He was hired after his second fight by Bruno Heller, who was starting the second season of CBS’s “The Mentalist.” In six years on the show, Harper went from being a writer to helping write the finale. “That’s why it’s so hard for me to tell people who want to get into Hollywood how to do it,” admitted Harper, “because I hit the lottery.”

Rebecca Cutter, a writer, producer and showrunner who has worked her way up the ranks with Harper, has called him “the MVP of the room” on the projects they’ve worked on together. She was impressed, she said in a phone call, by his extensive knowledge of crime and a library that included FBI handbooks, court transcripts and gang lore. “She eats it for breakfast,” Cutter said.

Harper’s storytelling moved at a slower pace than her television career. She shelved the first novel she wrote and self-published a collection of gritty 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 landed 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. “She would compare ‘She She Rides Shotgun’ to anything written in the last 25 or 30 years,” said the acclaimed Virginia novelist. “It’s so good.”

Harper’s passions 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 what he does better than almost anyone else,” Harper said, “is create this dream world that’s 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? She named her dog after him.

A man with a tattoo on his arm and wearing a black T-shirt stands in front of hedges and a palm tree.

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

Unfortunately the series was not picked up, but after spending all that time in Ellroy’s head, Harper had an epiphany: he was now an Angeleno. 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 all I had to say about poor white criminals. He was beginning to seem dishonest. … I was ready to enter the world of Los Angeles, the world of Hollywood, the world of power.

In other words, Ellroy’s world. But unlike his idol, who often dissects periods from the past, Harper wanted to tell a wholly contemporary story. The dark epic that unfolds in the pages of “Everybody Knows” makes “ripped from the headlines” detective programs seem bizarre by comparison. “Reading ‘Everybody Knows’ feels like someone is telling you a horrible secret,” Cosby said.

The book is filled with private security mercenaries, gangs of sheriff’s department deputies, 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 isn’t, though, Harper insists, is a #MeToo novel.

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

Ed Brubaker, author of the graphic novel series Reckless, who is currently collaborating with Harper on a television project, compares Harper’s work to legendary figures in Los Angeles detective fiction: “’Everybody Knows’ looks like Chandler crossed with Ellroy but with the knowledge of Michael Connelly of LA”

Cosby, who does not recall a conversation with Harper in which he made no reference to Ellroy, believes the two writers are more evenly matched than Harper would admit. “I think he’s equal to Ellroy,” Cosby said. “[Harper] writes about California from a panoply of viewpoints, whether it’s the dirty white kids of the Inland Empire or the Technicolor Day-Glo dreamscape that is the entertainment industry in Los Angeles.

For Cosby, it comes down to how Harper treats her characters. Whether they’re uncovering LA’s darkest secrets or sitting in traffic, they’re always relatable. She “She Takes these broken people and puts them to the test. She helps them find their humanity in a way that isn’t treacherous and isn’t saccharine. It’s a hard-earned existential journey.”

“Everybody Knows” is poised to be Harper’s bestselling novel. “I feel like everything he does,” Brubaker said, “is going to be a huge bestseller.” Cosby has no doubts that big things are in store for her friend. “Honestly, I think he’s underrated as a writer, and I don’t know why because he’s your favorite mystery writer’s favorite mystery writer.”

Harper, who is already working on another book with characters from “Everybody Knows,” said, “I think I have at least three books” set in this world. It has been 30 years since Ellroy released “White Jazz”, the latest chapter of his LA Quartet. Have your favorite mystery writers found a worthy successor?

Only Harper knows.

Harper will be in conversation with Steph Cha at Stories Books & Cafe at 7pm on January 10.

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

This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

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