Jordan Harper is an LA crime novelist based in Eagle Rock at the Los Angeles River on Thursday, Dec. 8, 2022. (Photo by Dean Musgrove, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)
It’s a classic Hollywood tale.
After spending years writing on CBS’s “The Mentalist,” Jordan Harper landed a dream project: Developing James Ellroy’s “L.A. Confidential” into a TV series. With a strong cast, a talented director, and rich source material, the project seemed like a winner. Until it wasn’t.
The TV pilot didn’t get picked up, didn’t become a TV show.
That’s where this story begins.
A hard reset
“I got the chance of a lifetime to try and bring James Ellroy’s ‘L.A. Confidential’ to television,” says Harper during a phone call from his Eagle Rock home. “The people who decided not to make it a TV show thought it was a great TV show, but that’s not the metric that you use. And so you learn that it’s possible to do something that is really well-liked but is not going to happen. And it was extremely frustrating.
“I had all of this energy to tell a big, epic L.A. crime story that I had built up to do five seasons of ‘LA Confidential.’ And when that wasn’t going to happen, I decided to harness that energy, but to do something very different, which was to set it in right now,” says Harper, who aimed to explore the conventions of classic noir novels, he says, and “drag them into the 21st century.”
The result is “Everybody Knows,” Harper’s adrenaline-charged Hollywood story that examines the sort of sordid crimes, deals and misbehavior that nondisclosure agreements typically silence. The book, out Jan. 10, has earned praise from writers such as Michael Connelly, Steph Cha, Attica Locke, James Patterson and S.A. Cosby, among others.
“I like to say he’s one of the best crime novelists working today – but he’s really one of the best novelists working today,” says Cosby, author of “Blacktop Wasteland” and “Razorblade Tears” and a friend who will be appearing with Harper at Pasadena’s Vroman’s on Jan. 25.
“Everybody Knows” centers on Mae Pruett, a so-called “black-bag publicist” whose job isn’t to promote the news — it’s to smother and bury the bad stuff before it ever gets out. Along with a disgraced ex-sheriff’s deputy she reconnects with, Mae aims to stay on the good side of The Beast, which is what she calls the high-powered lawyers, publicists and private security who enforce the status quo in Hollywood. Until a murder changes everything.
“A lot of crime fiction, and male-driven crime fiction especially, can be very backwards looking. And I think it’s really important to try and engage in the world that we live in now,” says Harper. “It’s really important that we grapple with both these eternal questions that noir is so good at grappling with — about how to be a good person in an evil world, or even more importantly, how to be a good person when you have evil inside yourself.”
Within its short, punchy chapters, Harper’s Southern California seems both familiar and freshly menacing.
“There is a long history of books that try as much as they can to take L.A. down in a couple of big bites. And crime fiction has always been one of those avenues for a big portrait of Los Angeles that doesn’t just include the palm trees and Rodeo Drive or wherever you go when you’re a tourist here.”
“‘Everybody Knows,’ a bulk of it was written during the pandemic and I essentially emptied the totality of my Los Angeles into it,” says Harper, who likes to use real locations for his fiction. “After I’ve written rough drafts, I like to get in my car with my laptop and go to the place where a scene is set. And I do my polishes, if at all possible, at the place where I wrote the scene. I checked into the Chateau Marmont to start this book and wrote the first chapter there and saw all the celebrities named in Chapter One.”
So filled with recognizable locales and up-to-the-minute lore, it’s a surprise to find that some of its dark twists spring from the mind of Harper, not a TMZ headline.
“With a lot of the stuff that I write about, I think fiction is a better avenue for exploring it than reporting is because it’s so hard to report about things where everybody’s kind of agreed to keep mum,” he says. “There are lots of things in Hollywood where everybody knows.”
Born in Springfield, Missouri, and raised in the Ozarks, Harper worked as a journalist in St. Louis and New York City, writing about film for the Village Voice before feeling the need for a change.
“I was sort of falling out of love with all of that and becoming aware of the fact that I was a critic who secretly wished that he was a writer, which is the worst kind of critic you can be,” he says. “So I decided I had to start writing some crime stories.”
At first, he found inspiration in the world he’d grown up in.
“My grandfather, who was a prison guard in the Ozarks, kind of taught me a lot of those early ideas about masculinity I had. He was a prison guard who made knives in his spare time and gave me chewing tobacco when I was 7 at a rodeo. He died about the same time Johnny Cash died, and I wrote a short story called “Johnny Cash Is Dead,” which I got published in Thuglit, which is one of the most important crime fiction magazines of the last 25-30 years.
“I did that for a while and moved out here to L.A. and got my job on ‘The Mentalist.’ I was in the Warner Brothers Writers’ Workshop, which is a training program for writers,” says Harper, who published a book of stories called “Love and Other Wounds.”
He credits his years on “The Mentalist” as “an incredible gift” and a place where he met friends and colleagues and, indirectly, his partner Megan Mostyn-Brown, when ‘Mentalist’ creator Bruno Heller hired both of them to write for the series “Gotham.”
It’s also where Harper got an idea for a story that would become his first novel.
“I’m not sure exactly where I had the idea to specifically update ‘Lone Wolf and Cub,’ which is a Japanese comic and movie series, as a Southern California crime story. But I know it took me probably something like four or five years from the initial idea to actually executing it.”
There were some tough moments, such as when he realized he needed to rewrite the book from a different character’s perspective. “I was so depressed by the amount of work that was going to lead to that I just left the printout of the book on the floor of my office at ‘Gotham,’” he says. “My friends on the show joked that it was like a murder scene.”
But he got it done and the result was “She Rides Shotgun,” a blast of double-barreled crime fiction about an ex-con who abducts his own child to keep her safe from the White nationalist gang that wants them both dead.
“The other real inspiration for it was the movie ‘Paper Moon,’ and sometimes I describe ‘She Rides Shotgun’ as ‘Paper Moon’ with a body count,” Harper laughs. “‘Blank with a body count’ is a really good way to describe a lot of my work.”
The Edgar Award-winning book attracted the notice of crime fiction aficionados, including Cosby, whose own career would soon take off with bestsellers and an appearance on President Obama’s 2022 summer reading list. Cosby praises Harper as a writer, a colleague and a friend.
“He’s quietly one of the funniest people I know. But he writes these incredibly, nearly mythic crime novels that are epic in scope but personal in execution,” says Cosby, who credits Harper for blurbing for his first novel, the newly republished, “My Darkest Prayer.” “I personally don’t think there’s anybody thinking as deeply about the actual craft, the act of writing, as deeply as Jordan Harper.”
For Harper, that first novel, and another published in the UK called “The Last King of California,” connected him with his roots.
“‘She Rides Shotgun’ was me finding the closest thing to the Ozarks I could find in Southern California, which was Fontana, and that kind of dirty white boy attitude that is somewhat of an American universal. Once you get keyed into that redneck rhythm, you can find it anywhere,” says Harper. “‘Everybody Knows’ with a conscious switch.”
A scanner, nightly
Having put everything he knew about L.A. into “Everybody Knows,” Harper says he’s committed to getting out into the city again after the pandemic. Really committed, it seems.
“I went out and I bought a police scanner, and I’ve been going out night crawling with my friends, and we’re just driving around listening to police scanners,” he says, adding that he’s “not getting involved.”
But Harper did get entangled in one gruesome incident, which he wrote about in his Substack newsletter, “Welcome to the Hammer Party.” He’d been out on a walk when a woman he didn’t know approached and asked him to look in on her elderly neighbor. At her urging, Harper checked inside the man’s residence.
“I looked at him on the floor for less than a second,” says Harper. “He had been dead obviously for days.”
The author said he didn’t realize how upsetting the incident had been until he’d missed some meetings and didn’t write for a week. “It took me a few days to figure out how much it had messed me up.”
But the experience reminded him of the need to engage in the world he’s writing about.
“It’s really important to be out in Los Angeles and see it as it is right now, which is this city of highs and lows,” he says. “I’m gonna keep doing it because I think it’s really important to do.”
Jordan Harper in conversation with S.A. Cosby
When: 7 p.m. Jan. 25
Where: Vroman’s Bookstore, 695 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena