LOS ANGELES — Daniel Depp doesn't look as if he could be the brother of superstar actor Johnny Depp. There's a reason for that: They're half-brothers, actually, and Daniel Depp is on the short side, with a physique more square than lithe, his beard and pulled-back hair streaked with gray.
The avuncular, 55-year-old Kentucky native could be a literature professor holding court for his students as he leans back in a booth in a dark Hollywood bar, nursing a Jack Daniel's ("I'm a traitor," he admits, with his Tennessee drink). But his debut novel, "Loser's Town" (Simon & Schuster, $25), certainly takes advantage of his front row seat to Hollywood glamour.
That wasn't his original intention. Depp initially set out to write a novel set in the world of Kentucky thoroughbred racing. But after 120 pages, he realized it wasn't working out. The plot was too convoluted.
"It's hard to do a noir-ish detective story in Kentucky; it doesn't quite come off," he said. "The character turned out to be too big for the setting."
Hollywood provided no such problems. Set in the world of movie sets, red-carpet premieres, exclusive nightclubs and gated, hillside mansions, "Loser's Town" deftly mixes the moral gravity of Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe with the smart dialogue and sharply drawn characters of Elmore Leonard and Carl Hiaasen. The book follows David Spandau, a retired stuntman (and part-time rodeo performer) turned detective, who is hired to find out who is threatening rising matinee idol Bobby Dye.
Depp packs a lot of plot into the novel's 290 pages. "Loser's Town" is filled with drug deals, double crosses, seductions and murders, but feels more like a character study than a whodunit or police procedural. That's by design, he said.
"I didn't want to write a slick novel. I wanted something that had a little jagged edge. The fun of writing the book was to set these characters up and have their own natures determine where they're going to go."
At the heart of "Loser's Town" is a growing but conflicted friendship that develops between the old-school Spandau and the guarded, suspicious Dye. Spandau starts to have almost paternal feelings for the alternately arrogant and vulnerable young actor as he takes on Ritchie Stella, a nightclub owner who has photos that could derail Dye's career. (In one of the book's wittier touches, Stella — an oily fixer who orbits around the stars with a supply of drugs, booze and women — isn't looking for money but instead wants Dye to star in his screenplay.)
Depp is emphatic that Dye was not based on his brother, and the book bears him out. The prickly Dye has none of the cool smarts that have defined Johnny's career; he comes off more like a lonelier, less secure version of Vincent Chase on HBO's "Entourage." The brothers didn't even discuss the book; Daniel simply called Johnny and gave him the general outline of the plot. But the Depp brothers' close relationship (they co-wrote "The Brave," a 1997 movie directed by and starring Johnny; and Daniel runs Scaramanga, Johnny's production company) obviously colored Daniel's attitude toward Dye.
"I've seen what happens to actors," Depp said, calling Dye an "incredibly sympathetic character."
"To say that I am proud is a monumental understatement," Johnny Depp told USA Today. "I've been proud for a long, long time, having been well aware of my brother's great talent for the majority of my life. That he and his work are finally being recognized by readers and serious book-heads alike is, of course, spectacular, but not all that surprising.
"And though this particular genre isn't your typical laugh/riot fare, there are a mere handful of writers who can describe a situation to the degree that it can send me into giggling fits: Hunter Thompson, Terry Southern, Tom Robbins, Bruce Robinson and my very own brother, Daniel. Yes I'm biased, but what brother wouldn't be? I'd be recommending this book, blood or no blood!"
Spandau, Daniel Depp said, was "a gift from the gods," a character who is both inside and outside the industry.
"I wanted someone who could straddle both worlds," and a stuntman proved ideal. "They're inside, but what they do is practical. They're privy to what's going on, but not really caught up in the hype. And they risk their lives, so there's that element of physical and emotional bravery."
With a busted marriage (from Dee, the ex-wife he still loves), a love of cowboys and the Old West (he's turned one room of his house into a cowboy shrine Dee named "the Gene Autry Room") and a sore thumb from a rodeo accident that sticks out like a sore thumb, Spandau has a brooding complexity that connects him with classic detectives such as Chandler's Marlowe and Ross MacDonald's Lew Archer.
Like them, Spandau sees Los Angeles through a cynical, hard-boiled filter. The city is filled with "too much light, all depth burned away and sacrificed ... a thousand square miles of man-made griddle on which to fry for our sins."
While writing the book, Depp worried that he had made Spandau "too butch." There's the danger that "if you're not really careful, you can get clichéd. You can hard-boil an egg, but at some point you can bounce it off the wall and it becomes indigestible."
He wasn't sure that someone as "old-fashioned and romantic, as in love with the mythology of the American West" would play in a contemporary novel. For Depp, Spandau's connection to that mythology is what makes him modern. "His character is determined by something that may well be a myth. He knows there's a problem with the myth, but he's struggling for something to hang on to."
He dreams of nothing more than to retire to the ranch his mother-in-law owns north of Los Angeles, raise horses and read his collection of antiquarian books. Spandau shares some of the more highbrow interests of his creator — Depp ran a bookstore in Santa Barbara — and while "Loser's Town" "has its share of brittle agents, harried directors and knighted thespians on the downslope of their careers, Depp reserves his affections and most pungent dialogue for the characters who live in the lower rungs of the Hollywood food chain.
"I know these people," Depp says. "I lived in Florida in the ''70s, and lots of friends were bumped off in drug deals, worked construction with guys just out of prison. That's the way they are."
What connects these characters are their dreams, the world they are struggling to hold on to. Those dreamers, Depp says, are what makes Los Angeles a loser's town. (The title is taken from a description of L.A. by ''50s bad-boy actor Robert Mitchum, who added, "you can make it here when you can't make it anywhere else.")
Depp envisions "Loser's Town" as the first in a trilogy of Spandau novels. He's already worked out the plots for the next two: "Babylon Nights" finds Spandau hired to protect an aging actress in L.A. and at the Cannes Film Festival, and "Devil's Dance" will delve into Spandau's office. If the books are successful, he's not averse to writing more, but "the problem with most series fiction is the character can't change that much." Which can be very difficult because "by the fifth volume, he may be unrecognizable from what they fell in love with in the first one."
No matter how many Spandau books he writes, he has no delusions that he'll ever match his brother's fame.
"I could win the Nobel Prize for Literature, and my obituary will still read, 'Daniel Depp, brother of Johnny Depp and. ..." Their common last name can be a mixed blessing.
"It opens up a lot of doors, but at the same time, it closes a lot of doors. I can't tell you the number of times I've shown up to pitch a script, and it end up with them going, "'Oh, great idea ... and by the way, we have a great idea for your brother ...'"
But being a Depp has its perks. As the interview winds down, Depp looks at his watch. It's time to go, he says. He has plans to meet Johnny for dinner, then a screening.