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Jordan Harper writes an LA noir novel for a new era : NPR

Everybody Knows, by Jordan Harper

I love detective novels. Maybe I love him too much. That’s what some people think. Every time I review a mystery instead of a “Literature” tome with a capital “L”, I get wayward emails. But I’ve always thought that Duke Ellington’s vision of music applied to books as well: “There are just two kinds of music, good music and the other. So I’m going to tell you about a good book. It happens to be a detective story.

Everyone knows, by Jordan Harper, is a hard-hitting story about a so-called “black bag publicist” named Mae Pruett who works for a prestigious crisis management firm in Los Angeles. Mae is the person who gets called when movie stars, studio executives, and politicians misbehave. She walks around town with blank nondisclosure agreements stuffed in her tote bag. As we’ve been told more than once, LA is a place where “no one talks, but everyone whispers”. Mae’s job is to keep the “Sweet Xanax” whisperings.

When the novel opened, Mae was called to the Chateau Marmont, the legendary Hollywood hotel where John Belushi overdosed and Jim Morrison and Lindsay Lohan, among others, partied too hard. “Castle jobs tend to be complicated,” Mae tells us, and this one is no exception.

Hannah Heard, an already fading 20-year-old star, is set to start filming a new movie in the morning. The problem? His left eye is “purple and swollen like a split plum”. A mega-rich freak paid six figures to fly Hannah halfway around the world and have sex with him on his yacht. When he secretly started filming their date, Hannah threw her cell phone out of a window. Hence the eye.

If the producers see that eye, Hannah will be boxed — already her manager, agent, and attorney won’t return her calls. Mae thinks to herself: “This plop-plop-plop you hear is the sound of rats hitting the water.”

Jazzed up by the challenge, Mae improvises a cover-up that blames Hannah’s anxious little dog for her black eye. The quirky cover hits Instagram and everyone buys it. Mae celebrates at the hotel lounge with a cocktail, “something with yuzu and mescal that tastes like delicious leather.” Then, her cell phone rings and things start to go haywire. It’s just chapter one.

Everyone knows is classic LA noir from the #MeToo era. Its tireless plot features all the standard tropes: young and handsome vulnerable actors, depraved men in power, twisted real estate deals and the miserable excess of Hollywoodland. None of these elements, however, seem to be part of a cardboard decor.

Mae herself is morally nuanced: she’s buzzed with the “peek behind the curtain” her black bag job gives her, even if it pushes her away. She accepts that most of the time, her job is to rehabilitate the “bad guys” and “separate power from responsibility”.

But then Mae and her ex-lover, a former sheriff’s deputy turned private enforcer, stumble upon something big, a “beast” of a predatory plot that threatens to eat them whole. They change sides and have to play the game “against whom [they] used to be.”

As ingenious as Harper’s plot is, so too is the cynical lyricism of the language of Everyone knows who kept me transfixed; reading is like watching sunset boulevard for the first time. Harper’s descriptions of the weird and performative aspects of LA are particularly sharp. In a trendy restaurant, for example, “Mae takes it out on her [meal of] ancient grains and bison. It tired his jaw eating it.”

Or, there’s this couple waiting outside the Beverly Hills Hotel:

“[T]he woman has tufts of blonde hair framing her acid face, her teeth like pearls between full Joker lips. Her husband stands like a bag of something wet, puffs of gray hair lifting up his shirt, tangling through the slits of the buttons like prisoners clinging between bars. He looks at the age that the woman is not allowed to be.

Or, there are the Raymond Chandler-esque zingers: “Traffic in Los Angeles is like quicksand – difficulty made you sink faster.”

I’d like to think Chandler himself might love it Everyone knows. He would be disconcerted, of course, by her ultimately feminist sexual politics; but he’d be thrilled to see how the mysterious shape of Los Angeles he largely created continues to tell of a world even more obsessed with images and false gods than he ever could have imagined.

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