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, 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 Los Angeles. Mae is the person who's called in when movie stars, studio executives and politicians behave badly. She 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 no exception.
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 half way around the world and have sex with him on his yacht. When he secretly started filming their tryst, Hannah threw his cell phone 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 cell phone rings and things start to go haywire. That's just Chapter One.
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 Hollywoodland. 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. At one trendy restaurant, for instance, "Mae picks at her [meal of] ancient grains and bison. It made her jaw tired to eat it."
Or, there's this couple waiting outside The Beverly Hills Hotel:
"[T]he woman has billows of blond 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 grey 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 the Raymond 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 its 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.