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Photography by Josh Steichmann
Jordan Harper is a specialist in brutality. The former St. Louisan (and erstwhile music editor for the Riverfront Times) has just self-published a collection of hard-boiled crime stories, American Death Songs (www.jordanharper.com), that takes no prisoners. When Harper isn’t inventing ingeniously horrific tales of murder, he’s writing ingeniously clever episodes of The Mentalist for CBS.
You write very realistic descriptions of characters’ Nazi-prison-gang tattoos and meth-cooking scars, drug-gang safe houses, security at jewelry stores… Knowing about those worlds just happens organically, because it’s what I like to read about. I have books at home about knife-fighting techniques used in Folsom Prison, meth cookbooks, manuals on shooting heroin, and so on. As far as White Power goes, I grew up in Springfield, Mo., when it was the national headquarters of the Hammerskin Nation. I actually had relatives put in the hospital by the White Power gang guys.
So much in these stories references St. Louis and Missouri: The Hill, Little Bosnia, the Missouri meth problem, even the song “Jackie Blue” by the Ozark Mountain Daredevils. St. Louis is one of the places that I’ve lived that has a fascinating criminal history. I think it’s important to set stories in places other than New York and L.A., and I set a lot in the Ozarks because that’s where I grew up.
One of your stories is about two rival gangs of crack dealers in Brooklyn in the ’90s. It seems like a challenge to give voice to these characters like you do, with all the period slang they use. My generation’s westerns are urban; they’re Dr. Dre songs. I wanted to write something from a gangster perspective. I’m as much shaped by Ghostface Killah as Quentin Tarantino. I read a lot of the great noir novels; I’m a huge James Ellroy and James M. Cain fan. But sometimes the crime genre can fetishize the early part of the 20th century too much, so I’m trying to move on to later periods. I hope to never write about the mafia or speakeasies, because there are other things to write about. There are a lot of places in the great American tradition of crime to be uncovered.
There’s so much brutality in each of these stories—a forced hanging, a prison stabbing, a group execution—does the horror genre interest you, too? I’m kind of fishing around for my next project now, and one of the things I’m interested in writing about is a project that’s like The X-Files meets The Shield. I like the Lovecraftian terror more. I’m not conversant in what’s going on in the horror-fiction world. I find brutality and violence dramatic. I try to write violence so it has an effect on people. I don’t want it to be casual; I want people to feel it.
Some of these stories end just as the most violent sequence of all seems about to begin. It’s nice to let the reader figure out what’s going to happen next. Also, I feel like after the emotional arc of the story ends, the story is finished.
Do you have goals like a novel, a film, your own TV pilot? The answer is yes, I’d like to do all of those things. I recently finished writing a TV pilot that I just sent to my agent. I have a draft of a novel I’m working on. I’m sticking to my genre; everything is hard-boiled crime. There are so many mediums to play with. TV has been serendipitous for me—I never expected it to work out as well as it has. And of course, fiction is very hard to make a living at.
Who are some of your other favorite writers of crime fiction? I would say there’s a lot of really great noir fiction going on. Frank Bill has a new novel called Donnybrook I’m excited to read. Donald Ray Pollock. Jed Ayres. Daniel Woodrell. A lot of guys from the Midwest, like these, are showing people that country-grit subculture now. I like people who can blend literary ambitions with crime, too.
Are you one of a team of writers on The Mentalist? There are 10 of us writers. Some shows are room-based, meaning team-written. Others are written more or less individually, with the input of others acting as editors. I can come up with an episode idea and run it by my bosses. There are always a lot of changes and a lot of masters to please, so to speak. I also ask the other writers for help. I work with a lot of writers who have great pedigrees. I’ve learned so much from them. It’s fantastic. I feel like I’ve been going to grad school for four years and getting paid for it.
Have you written any episodes of The Mentalist that have that sort of brutal crime element? I’ve written eight episodes now, but maybe the most “Jordan Harper” episodes are one in the third and one in the fifth season, where one of the characters has a father played by William Forsythe who’s a no-good, lowdown redneck criminal. I got to bring in that element to the show, and that was amazing.
My favorite story in American Death Songs was “Beautiful Trash,” in which a crime-scene “cleaner,” a la Harvey Keitel’s character in Pulp Fiction, has a tender dalliance with a Hollywood flak who has a dark side of her own. The whole underbelly of Hollywood is something that fascinates me, especially since I live out here now. That may turn into a novel someday. I really enjoy love stories between damaged people, who are both hurting and can comfort each other that way. They’re both doing really bad things and can’t share their lives with anyone except each other. It’s not like the standard Hollywood story where the two most beautiful people in the room hook up.
Have you actually seen any of that Hollywood darkness firsthand? I don’t see it firsthand, but when you go on the set of the TV show, everyone has worked on other TV shows and movies, and the network of celebrities is actually small and a great source of gossip. Everybody is very professional; it’s not like this cocaine-soaked hellhole existence, but we all gossip and you do hear these amazing stories about this whole other category of people who, for instance, are into swinging, and live the Hollywood Babylon existence.
And you’ve turned one of the stories into a film? I’ve made a short film out of one of the short stories, and I financed it myself. It’s based off the first story, “Midnight Rider,” named after the Allman Brothers song. The actor Ryan Hurst, who plays Opie from Sons of Anarchy, performs the story as a monologue. It should be available to watch soon.
You dedicate the book to a murdered relative. His name was Ollie Crosswhite. He was one of the policemen murdered in the Young Brothers Massacre in 1932. It was the largest killing of U.S. policemen in a single incident before 9/11. A group of policemen went to serve a warrant to a family of criminal brothers, and they didn’t want to go. They killed six policemen, including my great-grand-uncle. The Young Brothers wound up murdering each other. I grew up with this book, written in 1932, that was a graphic description of the story. It helped shape my worldview in a lot of ways. My story “Johnny Cash is Dead” in the book has my grandfather, Kevin Crosswhite, as the main character, too. He was a prison guard who worked at the federal medical prison in Springfield. He once drove a man to Leavenworth to be killed, and he told me the story. There’s this masculine folklore in my family, and I think a sort of rough-hewn American spirit that has left us in certain ways.
I heard you own a pet rabbit. No. The rabbit died last year. He’d actually lived for 10 years, which I didn’t know rabbits could. We have a puppy now named Ellroy, like the writer James Ellroy.
You can read Harper’s very short story “Midnight Rider,” here.