There’s no better way to demonstrate respect for an author—especially one who’s no longer among the living—than to continue enjoying his or her work.
Read the Rap Sheet’s interview with Owen Laukkanen, author of ‘The Professionals.’
Fortunately, there are still some U.S. publishers willing to keep mystery and thriller novels by older wordsmiths in circulation. Hard Case Crime, for instance, has resurrected fiction by the likes of David Dodge, Lester Dent, Steve Fisher and spy novelist-turned-Watergate burglar E. Howard Hunt. Stark House Press offers a catalogue of reprints that includes works by Dan J. Marlowe, A.S. Fleischman, W.R. Burnett and Day Keene. Editor Otto Penzler’s Mysterious Press is busily reviving, at least in e-book form, fiction by George Harmon Coxe, Dennis Lynds (aka Michael Collins), Stuart M. Kaminsky and Ellery Queen. And Ben Leroy’s Prologue Books imprint has started bringing back (again in electronic versions) works by William Campbell Gault, Fletcher Flora, Talmage Powell and Frank Kane.
But many of this genre’s once-familiar contributors seem to have taken their fiction right down into the grave with them. Notable among those is Arthur Lyons, who wrote 11 novels about a Southern California private eye named Jacob Asch—all now out of print.
Lyons died just four years ago, in March 2008, after suffering head injuries from a fall, followed by a stroke. He was 62 years old. Obituaries at the time mentioned that he had been born in Los Angeles in 1946, had moved to the California desert resort town of Palm Springs at age 11, graduated from the University of California, Santa Barbara in 1967 and worked in his family’s restaurant business in the Springs before becoming a successful novelist. It was mentioned, too, that Lyons once served as a Palm Springs city councilman, and that in 2000 he’d co-founded an annual film celebration in the same burg. (Now known as the Arthur Lyons Film Noir Festival, that event is scheduled to take place this year from May 10 to 13.)
Naturally, those obits also recalled his writing career.
Lyons had published a nonfiction work in 1970, a study of Satanism and cult development in America called The Second Coming. However, it was his first novel, The Dead Are Discreet (1974), that marked the course for his near future. It introduced readers to 34-year-old Asch, an embittered but nonetheless witty and compassionate, half-Jewish former investigative reporter for the (fictional) Los Angeles Chronicle. After being jailed for six months because he refused to rat out a story source, Asch drifted reluctantly into a gumshoeing career, and found that it fit him. In The Dead Are Discreet—a direct outgrowth of the author’s research on cults—Asch investigates the ritual murder of a wealthy young woman, which leads him “through the underground of Los Angeles of the 1970s, from its arcane religious sects of Satanists and Jesus freaks to the kinky sexual pleasures of the wealthy who could callously destroy the life of a teenage girl for the sake of a roll of bizarre movie film.”
Asch’s cases are often like that—not pretty in the least. Lyons’ second novel, All God’s Children (1975), finds the P.I. searching for a missing girl who’s fallen in with head-stomping bikers, one of whom Asch, frustrated and angry, tries to run down with his car. (“My attention was focused on the face staring at me through the windshield, shouting for me to stop. I accelerated to fifty and jerked the wheel back and forth, sadistically savoring the abject terror in the face as the car swayed from side to side.”) In The Killing Floor (1976), he’s hired to locate the co-owner of a meatpacking business whose gambling problems may have something to do with his precipitate disappearance. Dead Ringer (1977), which author Lyons once declared was his “best book,” throws Asch into the testosterone-fueled world of professional boxing as he endeavors to protect an Argentinean prizefighter who’s been receiving phoned threats.
And in Hard Trade (1981), after Asch’s prospective client is killed right before his eyes, the shamus launches an investigation that leads him to political corruption and into the then-shadowy world of gay sex. It also encumbers Asch with a greater burden of pessimism than he’d borne before. As the P.I. muses at one point: “Picking up other people’s dirty leavings, following pedophiles around until all hours of the morning, fried out of my skull on speed, snooping around in other’s people’s apartments sorting through their underwear—I was in a character-building profession, all right.”
My favorite Asch tale, though, is still Castles Burning (1979), about an artist who wants to track down the wife and son he abandoned years before, only to have it discovered that both of them were killed in a long-ago car crash. This fifth Asch outing—set in Palm Springs—begins with a passage that rivals even the famous opening of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep: “The blonde was bent over the chair, precariously balanced on ten-inch platform heels, looking at me through her legs. Her miniskirt was hiked up past the tops of her black nylons, exposing a patch of purple-pantied pudenda, and she wore a faintly surprised expression on her face, as if she had been expecting someone else.”
Lyons was one among a cadre of talented young American detective novelists in the 1970s and early ’80s, all vying to wear the crowns once sported by earlier stars of the genre such as Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and Ross Macdonald. He drew attention at about the same time as Robert B. Parker, Stuart M. Kaminsky, Stephen Greenleaf, Jonathan Valin and Roger L. Simon. The New York Times called Jacob Asch “one of the more convincing private eyes in the business, thanks to Mr. Lyons’s skill at characterization.” Dorothy B. Hughes of the Los Angeles Times complimented Lyons on his “true ear for everyday dialogue.” And no less a critic than fellow author Charles Willeford commended Lyons as a “master of plotting.”
Yet after penning nine Asch books, Lyons started to waver in his path. He composed a couple of nonseries novels (Unnatural Causes and Physical Evidence) with former Los Angeles County chief medical examiner-coroner Thomas Noguchi. With Marcello Truzzi, director of Michigan’s Center for Scientific Anomalies Research, he wrote a book (The Blue Sense, 1991) about the value of parapsychology as a law-enforcement tool. In 1989, his 10th Asch story, Other People’s Money, finally saw print, but it took another five years for a sequel, False Pretenses, to appear. After that, Jacob Asch’s career was pretty much over. He was last spotted in a 1997 short story, “The Tongan Nude,” featured in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. Lyons turned his attention instead to motion pictures, an interest that led him to produce one last book, a nonfiction work titled Death on the Cheap: The Lost B Movies of Film Noir, as well help create the annual Palm Springs festival.
By the time he died in 2008, Arthur Lyons had spent almost as much time not writing novels as he had building up his original renown in the field.
The Asch series is still fondly remembered, at least by older readers. A few years ago, I conducted an online poll, asking crime-fiction fans which long-unpublished novelist in this genre they would most like to see writing again. Lyons ranked in the top five. Yet less than half a decade after his untimely demise, his novels are for sale only online and in the blessed dusty stacks of used bookstores.
Isn’t it about time for one of those publishing houses devoted to reviving interest in talented older crime novelists to rediscover the exploits of Jacob Asch?