DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Jordan Harper's 2017 novel "She Rides Shotgun" won the Edgar Award for the best debut mystery from the Mystery Writers of America. Our book critic Maureen Corrigan says Harper's latest novel, "Everybody Knows," is LA noir at its sleazy, suspenseful best. Here's her review.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: I love crime fiction. Maybe I love it too much. That's what some people think. Whenever I review a mystery instead of a work of Literature with a capital L, I get tetchy emails. But I've always thought that Duke Ellington's take on music applied to books, too. There are simply two kinds of music, Ellington said, good music and the other kind. So I'm going to tell you about a good book. It happens to be a crime novel. "Everybody Knows," by Jordan Harper, is a hardboiled suspense story about a so-called black-bag publicist named Mae Pruett who works for a prestige crisis management firm in LA. Mae is the person who's called in when movie stars, studio executives and politicians behave badly. Mae drives around town with blank non-disclosure agreements stuffed into her tote bag. As we're told more than once, LA is a place where nobody talks, but everybody whispers. Mae's job is to keep the whispers Xanax soft.
When the novel opens, Mae has been called to the Chateau Marmont, the legendary Hollywood Hotel where John Belushi overdosed and Jim Morrison and Lindsay Lohan, among others, partied too hard. Chateau jobs tend to be messy, Mae tells us, and this one is a beaut. Hannah Heard, a 20-something already fading star, is set to begin filming a new movie in the morning. The problem - her left eye is purple and swollen like a split plum.
Some mega-rich creep paid six figures to fly Hannah halfway around the world and have sex with him on his yacht. When he secretly started filming their tryst, Hannah threw his cellphone out a porthole, hence the eye. If the producers see that eye, Hannah will be canned. Already, her manager, agent and lawyer won't return her calls. Mae thinks to herself, that plop, plop, plop you hear is the sound of rats hitting water. Jazzed by the challenge, Mae improvises a cover-up that blames Hannah's anxiety-ridden little dog for her black eye. The quirky cover-up goes out on Instagram, and everybody buys it. Mae celebrates at the hotel lounge with a cocktail, something with yuzu and mescal that tastes like delicious leather. Then her cellphone rings, and things start to go haywire. That's just Chapter 1.
"Everybody Knows" is a classic LA noir for the #MeToo era. Its unflagging plot features all the standard tropes - vulnerable, young and beautiful actors, depraved men in power, crooked real estate deals and the wretched excess of Hollywood land. None of these elements, though, feel like part of a cardboard stage set. Mae herself is morally nuanced. She's buzzed by the peek behind the curtain her black bag work gives her, even as it repulses her. She accepts that most of the time her job is to rehab bad men and to disconnect power from responsibility. But then Mae and her ex-lover, a former sheriff's deputy turned private enforcer, stumble into something big, a beast of a predatory conspiracy that threatens to eat them whole. They switch sides and have to play the game against who they used to be.
As ingenious as Harper's plot is, it's also the cynical lyricism of the language of everybody knows that kept me transfixed. Reading it is like watching "Sunset Boulevard" for the first time. Harper's descriptions of the weird performative aspects of LA are especially sharp. For instance, there's the food at the trendy restaurant where Mae picks at her ancient grains and bison. The meal made her jaw tired to eat it. Or there's this couple waiting outside the Beverly Hills Hotel. The woman has billows of blonde hair framing her acid peel face, her teeth like pearls between Joker-plump lips. Her husband stands like a sack of something wet, puffs of gray hair lifting his shirt, tangling out from the button gaps like prisoners grasping between bars. He looks the age the woman is not allowed to be.
Or there are these Chandler-esque zingers - LA traffic is like quicksand, struggling just made you sink faster. I'd like to think Chandler himself might get a kick out of "Everybody Knows." He'd be baffled, of course, by his ultimately feminist sexual politics. But he'd be tickled to see how the LA hardboiled mystery form he largely created continues to chronicle a world even more fatally obsessed with images and false gods than he could ever have envisioned.
DAVIES: Maureen Corrigan is a professor of literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "Everybody Knows" by Jordan Harper. If you'd like to catch up on interviews, you've missed, like our conversation with actor F. Murray Abraham or with writer Jeff Guinn, who's written a gripping new account of the federal assault on the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas, check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews. And if you'd like a peek behind the scenes at FRESH AIR, subscribe to our newsletter. You'll find bonus material about the interviews, staff recommendations and highlights from the archives. You can subscribe to our website at freshair.npr.org.
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DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Seth Kelley, Susan Nyakundi and Joel Wolfram. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Thea Chaloner directed today's show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
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