Jordan Harper’s third novel, Everybody Knows, is steeped in a kind of knowingness about Los Angeles. Or, at least, about a particular aspect of Los Angeles. What I mean is that when it comes to the dark underside of Hollywood, Harper—who has worked as a television writer and producer and won a 2017 Edgar Award for She Rides Shotgun—clearly understands the territory. The Los Angeles he portrays is a city built in equal parts on exploitation and complicity, from the anonymous arsonist “torching homeless camps” to the publicists whose job it is to conceal the indiscretions of their rich and famous clients. That many of those clients work in the motion picture industry is established at the outset; the novel (which shares both a title and a certain cynical perspective with my favorite Leonard Cohen song) begins as a fixer named Mae Pruett arrives at the Chateau Marmont to clean up after a young actor, Hannah Heard, who has fallen off the wagon just before filming is to begin on the movie that might resuscitate her career.
“Red-wine stains on her orange Celine hoodie,” Harper tells us, “—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.” Here we see, in miniature, one of the methods to Harper’s novel, which relies on short, punchy sentences, often fragments, and a specificity of surface details.
These details are real (just think about that Celine hoodie) but also inferential, relying on our knowledge of the landscape as well. Mae, for instance, works for “Mitnick & Associates—LA’s preeminent crisis management firm.” If not quite a spoonerism, it’s a play on Sitrick and Company, which has represented, among others, both Harvey Weinstein and the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles. One of the clients with whom Mae engages is a Democratic fundraiser named Ward Parker, who has been implicated in the overdose deaths of two men. Does the name Ed Buck ring a bell? He’s the political bundler who was sentenced to 30 years in federal prison last April for, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Central District of California, soliciting “men—some of whom were homeless or struggling with drug addiction—to consume narcotics that he provided and perform sexual activities at his apartment.” It’s a practice known as “party-and-play.” In Buck’s case, it led to the fatal overdoses of two men.
The implication is that everyone is corrupt at every level. This includes Mae. She and her ex-boyfriend, a disgraced former sheriff’s deputy turned enforcer named Chris Tamburro, long to make a big score, something that will allow them to break free. At the same time, they recognize that whatever ideals or values they may have once held have long since disappeared. “I am a bullet,” Mae reflects as a lonely child growing up in Missouri. “And I’m going to build a gun that will shoot me out of here.” That gun turns out to be her work at Mitnick: “black-bag PR,” Harper explains, “…like James Bond, Hollywood sleaze edition.” Then her boss is killed in what looks like a random carjacking, and whatever vestiges of control she might have thought she had evaporate as the case goes sideways and she is drawn into a widening gyre of degradation beneath the glitz and glam of Hollywood.
All this makes for a terrific setup: a journey through the looking glass. Harper’s rat-a-tat pacing is also just right, his prose reading a little bit like case notes, full of facts that turn out not to be facts, or not the right ones, as his characters deceive not only one another but also themselves. As Harper knows, Hollywood and noir were made to go together, like the vodka and olives in a martini at Musso & Frank. How could it be otherwise in an industry built on ambition and desperation, where even the successful are ultimately forgotten, which means everyone is a commodity? That’s the message of novels such as Raymond Chandler’s The Little Sister and Dorothy B. Hughes’s In a Lonely Place, which are among Everybody Knows’s precursors, pointed takes on the hypocrisies (and worse) of the entertainment industry.
And yet, I want to say there’s something missing. I want to say the novel doesn’t quite add up. Or no, it’s not a matter of adding up, exactly; Harper is a skilled plot tactician, and his book is well constructed, and unpredictable nearly to the end. As opposed to Hughes and Chandler, however, who understood that there was no such thing as redemption, he eases up on Mae and Chris—and not only because they are trying to get out. Trying to get out, after all, is one of the great lies characters in noir tell themselves; remember Phyllis Nirdlinger and Walter Huff in James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity.
The difference is that Phyllis and Walter knew that they would never be delivered. They understood that they were trapped. In Everybody Knows, Mae and Chris allow themselves to believe otherwise. They allow themselves to imagine that they might find a passage through the muck. Even more, Harper allows himself to believe it, framing the novel’s finish as, if not a full-force liberation, an expiation of a sort. I want to be careful not to give away too much; one of the pleasures of the book is how Harper handles all the twists and turns. I also want to be careful to say that Everybody Knows is a solid novel, enjoyable to read.
But it could have been more.
There’s an idea we have as a culture that our stories need to be morality tales. I don’t agree with that—or perhaps it’s that I have a different sense of what morality means. The narratives that interest me are those that embrace the ambiguities, that leave unsavory characters unsavory, that force us to confront the stain in all of us: those about whom we are reading as much as ourselves. Mae and Chris are compromised; both have done terrible things. They have hurt people and covered up crimes, and—here is the important part—they understand that this has left them tarnished at the level of their souls. This is part of the point of the novel, and it works until the moment they decide it could be otherwise. That is the moment they stop being human beings and return to the realm of characters. That is the moment Everybody Knows falls prey to a convention it would have been more exhilarating to confound.•