Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Doing Time in the Springs

Editor’s note: Last Friday’s unexpected death, at age 62, of California novelist Arthur Lyons (shown below) sent me back into my old files, looking for a transcript of an interview I conducted with him almost 30 years ago and the subsequent correspondence between us. While searching, I also turned up an essay I penned about Lyons and his fictional private eye, Jacob Asch. I remember composing this piece, probably for Stephen Smoke’s short-lived Mystery magazine (to which I’d submitted other pieces), but don’t think it was ever published. Judging by my reference to Lyons’ approaching 36th birthday, I must have written this sometime in late 1981. It shows some of the editorial rawness of my youth, but still provides a decent overview of Lyons’ career and fictional output up to that point. I’m posting the article below, in hopes that it will inspire younger readers and others who haven’t been exposed before to this author’s once-praised stories to search them out and enjoy them now. There can be no greater tribute to a writer than to read his or her work.

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As we swing through the streets of Palm Springs in his little Italian sports car, Arthur Lyons talks about the hidden side of this desert town, about the cocaine trade and high-priced prostitution.

“The tourists don’t see the half of it,” he explains, turning down a quiet street and passing a clutch of well-tanned teenagers. “They see the fancy stores and Elvis Presley’s house. They don’t see the rest, but the crime is here.”

This town presents a different image to a casual observer. On its surface, Palm Springs has all the trappings of wealth, privilege, and stability. Its streets are decorated with chic boutiques and restaurants that cater to every taste and bank balance. Society soirées up on Frank Sinatra Drive and elsewhere are well attended, usually by people you just saw on The Tonight Show and by aspiring starlets clad in more diamonds than duds. Coming in off the purgatory of the surrounding desert, this burg is a flamboyant oasis to which the rich and retired retreat, leaving sparkling slicks of suntan lotion on heart-shaped swimming pools.

The idea that such a place could have a clean face but dirt around its ankles must be appealing to somebody with a perverse picture of modern society. Somebody like Lyons. It’s a perfect spot for a mystery novelist to live, a microcosm of modern California life--nice but a little bit nutty now and then, proper yet not above testing the limits of morality when the moment suits.

Here Lyons thrives. The author of seven novels featuring private eye Jacob Asch, he needs societies with depth, complexity. In the same way that Asch wanders the streets of Los Angeles in search of murderers and bent politicians, Lyons prowls the alleys of contemporary behavior and style in search of the profound statement and the ideal analogy. Drawing on his experience in this desert microcosm, he sees with an irreverent eye. People become caricatures and cities are reduced to profane simplicity.

In Dead Ringer (1977), his client
looked as if she had pushed well into her sixties, although she was not ready to admit just how far. Her platinum hair sat on her head like a swatch of bleached cotton candy. She wore a lot of makeup, but none of it was having the effect she hoped. Her false eyelashes only made her small eyes look smaller and narrower than they were; her plucked and repenciled eyebrows drew attention to her prominent brow and the bright-red lipstick only managed to make her thin lips look even thinner. But there was something underneath the makeup and the flamboyant pink pants suit that made it all something less than pathetic. Something in the way she stood or maybe the cool, cynical confidence in the shiny, indestructible eyes that straight-armed you and said: “Don’t worry about it, buddy, I can still take care of the likes of you,” and you knew she probably could.
Earlier, in The Dead Are Discreet (1974), his first novel, Lyons writes that Hollywood in the daytime is “like a man in the advanced stages of syphilis who has been caught with his pants down.”

Evocative writing. No question about that.

What Lyons picks up from his world seems very much like what California crime novelists have been describing for the last 50 years. So, naturally, critics have likened Lyons to people such as Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. Many point to the way he uses language, his settings and his philosophies, and say, “My God, we’ve found a successor to the Old Masters.”

But while such comparisons can be made, they’re often made without due consideration or thought to the consequences. Sure, they sound good in The New York Times or in blurbs on the backs of books, but they might prove harmful in the long run, affording this author too little credit for creativity and only narrow leeway for development.

Like several other modern detective-fiction writers, including Robert B. Parker and Gregory Mcdonald, Lyons is suffering from what might be termed “The Crown Prince Syndrome.” The critical clerisy watches his work closely for flaws; they like his style the way it is, and don’t want it to change. If he slips up and writes a book of admittedly lesser quality, or dares to try reworking his hard-boiled form, those commentators might jump on Lyons faster than they would on somebody else. He is an heir-apparent to the throne of hard-boiled mysterydom, after all, and as such he’s expected to adhere to the rules of the game.

There must be some old saying to describe Lyons’ dilemma, something on the order of “Nobody can be toppled quicker than the man at the top.”

What’s worrisome is that Arthur Lyons isn’t the crown prince type. Thirty-six years old in January, he’s a muscular blond with an easy-going style and a mouth full of clever lines. On the morning I meet him in Palm Springs, he’s suffering the painful half-existence of a hangover. Last night, he went out for a good time and some casual affection. But the partying ended when a minor-league Marlboro Man tried to test his pugilistic talents. Lyons walked away from the fight, pissed off and without the lady he says he “could’ve made if I’d stayed with it.”

All of this goes to prove that Lyons isn’t Mr. Macho of the Year, no matter what he looks like. He’s just a writer and a businessman. His background is in the restaurant trade. Taking the lead from his parents, he now manages a pair of eateries in downtown Palm Springs, Lindy Lou’s and the swanker Lyons English Grille. Of course, his business hasn’t left him a lot of time for creative writing--but it hasn’t stopped him from writing, either.

His first book was a non-fiction study of Satanism and cult development. Titled The Second Coming: Satanism in America (1970), the work gained its author critical praise, the position of occasional consultant to law-enforcement agencies working cult cases, and more than one good idea for his fiction.

The Dead Are Discreet was a direct outgrowth of the research he’d done on cults and ritual murder. A well-paced, if still rather unrefined, entry into the mystery-fiction genre, The Dead Are Discreet involved the Los Angeles drug scene, kinky sex, and the occult. Private eye Jacob Asch was hired by a lawyer to discover whether his client was guilty of murder, but found more than he’d asked for in the way of brutality and deception.

Asch in that first story was a 34-year-old ex-newspaperman, divorced with no children and an uninspiring history (not unlike Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer in his own premiere adventure, 1949’s The Moving Target). “Your father was a tailor who had a little shop down on Fairfax,” a woman reminds him in the course of that tale. “You graduated from Fairfax High School and then went on to UCLA and quit after two years. You started working for the Chronicle in 1960 and were let go in 1969 after being jailed for refusing to reveal your news sources on a story you did. Since that time, you’ve been working as a private detective.”

Asch had been incarcerated after doing a series of articles on an armed-robbery case. “I had dug up evidence that the prosecution’s star eyewitness had been sixty miles away from the scene of the crime on the day in question,” the gumshoe explains early on. Like Myron Farber, the New York Times reporter who was jailed for withholding the names of his sources in a 1978 murder investigation, Asch did the honorable and ethical thing, but isn’t remembered as a hero. He was instead blacklisted in Los Angeles press circles for long enough, that he hasn’t been all that interested in going back to a Fourth Estate job since.

“Doing time” in L.A.’s New County Jail left Asch an interesting psychological specimen. The experience seems to have weakened a bit of his confidence. He was frightened by prison (easily understood) and has no qualms about admitting to it:
I was not one who handled jail well. Spending six months in County had left emotional scars on me that split open every time I got near a cell, never mind in one. I’d never been claustrophobic before then, but six months had left me that way.
As a detective, Asch is a deliberate plodder, much as he must have been during his reporting days. Rather than fight his way through an investigation, breaking arms and bashing heads to collect information, he hangs out in county records offices and libraries, pouring over title deeds and marriage certificates in search of the clues that could break open his latest case. Still, he retains a certain unspoken toughness that clients often find helpful. “You want me on this case because you want somebody who can wade through it up to his eyeballs and not puke from the smell,” he tells one employer.

Although he avoids violence whenever possible--just like his creator--there’s an inner anger in Asch that comes out when he’s pushed too far. In Lyons’ second novel, All God’s Children (1975), the story of Asch’s pursuit of a missing girl who has fallen in with face-stomping bikers and Jesus freaks, the sleuth’s patience is tested over and again. In a final effort to regain control of his situation, Asch runs his car headlong into a biker who tries to block his path. The tough guy is flung up onto the hood of the car, and stays there for a while, clinging to the windshield wipers in desperation. All the while, Asch seems to enjoy the hazardous exhibition:
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.
All in all, Jacob Asch is probably a very frustrated man. Too many times his spirit has been broken and his dreams flogged. He’s tired of always fighting so hard for things and of the loneliness that seems a permanent pattern in his life.

Unlike many of his contemporaries, Asch doesn’t have phalanxes of beautiful women flinging themselves at his clean bedsheets. He rarely wakes up in the morning with the obligatory note left in reminder on his spare pillow. Only once (in 1979’s Castles Burning) do I remember him lamenting the loss of a recent lover. He doesn’t even have stunning clients waltzing through his office door. In Hard Trade (1980), for instance, Asch is hired by a “Munchkin” of a lady who wants him to run a check on her betrothed. The detective doesn’t seem to mind, though, that she is less than a looker:
Marlowe and Spade could keep the breathless blondes, I thought. They were nothing but trouble anyway. I’d take the Munchkins any day. There were no legs to get distracted by and I didn’t have to wait for the check to clear.
Asch accepts his troubles better than many of his predecessors. He isn’t always feeling sorry for himself the way others do. Well, maybe once in a while ... Most of the time, though, he directs his energies to his cases, plowing as fast as he can through the crimes, even popping speed when he needs it to keep going.

His investigations are certainly outré enough to keep him interested. In The Killing Floor (1976), he’s hired to find the co-owner of a meat-packing business whose gambling problems may have led to his sudden disappearance. Dead Ringer, which author Lyons declares to be his “best book,” places Asch in the testosterone-pumped world of professional boxing. A brassy whore wants him to protect an Argentinean prizefighter who has been receiving threatening phone calls. And in Castles Burning, the detective sets out to find the wife and son of an artist who abandoned his family eight years before. Asch traces the wife to Palm Springs, but the case doesn’t simply end there. Before the book’s closing pages, Asch is offered murder and kidnapping to spice up his life.

Just like his contemporaries, the author of these books is given to elaborate scene setting. Although often more crass and explicit than someone like Chandler, Lyons’ storytelling style is nonetheless refined and provides some wonderful imagery. The kick-off to Castles Burning, when he describes a bizarre painting, is at least equal to the much-respected opening scene in The Big Sleep (1939):
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. She may have been at that, but I had the distinct impression that as long as I had my wallet with me, I could have been the Hunchback of Notre Dame. She looked as if she would be a good sport about little things like that.
Lyons has been criticized for being too explicit in his image-making, for explaining just what a mutilated corpse looks and smells like, or for expressing his anger in a torrent of four-letter words. But for most of us, his blatancy is refreshing.

He makes use of short sentences and simple words to draw you quickly into a scene. “Vernon stinks,” he writes in The Killing Floor. “It always stinks.” That’s a fine base for further description.

It took years for Arthur Lyons to gain much of a following. Part of the fault for that may be that the critics, while enthusing over his California style and witty phraseology, made the books sound like nothing new in this genre, like imitation Chandler or wannabe Hammett. Who wants to read something that’s a close copy of the classics, no matter how much they might enjoy the classics? More of the fault may lie with Lyons himself. The extent of his writing and plotting talents only really began to show through with the publication of The Killing Floor. Now, he insists, he’s starting to enjoy something of a cult following. There’s even talk of a TV movie being made from Castles Burning, which might lead to a series. Maybe he can fit that in around his writing of more Asch adventures--a couple more of which he’s already noddling over.

Life for a crown prince is hectic. Between restaurant management, novel writing, and nursing the occasional hangover, there’s not much time for Lyons to be worrying about thrones. Besides, out amidst the lush palm trees and desert winds of Southern California, a crown would only make his head sweat.

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A full rundown of Arthur Lyons’ Jacob Asch series:

The Dead Are Discreet (1974)
All God’s Children (1975)
The Killing Floor (1976)
Dead Ringer (1977)
Castles Burning (1979)
Hard Trade (1981)
At the Hands of Another (1983)
Three With a Bullet (1984)
Fast Fade (1987)
Other People’s Money (1989)
False Pretenses (1994)

READ MORE:Arthur Lyons, 62; Detective Novelist and Founder of Palm Springs Film Noir Festival,” by Mary Rourke (Los Angeles Times); “Last Exchange with a Literary Lyon,” by Mark Coggins (Riordan’s Desk).

1 comment:

Ali Karim said...

Wonderful to read this about a writer unknown to me - The problem is that abebooks have sorted out this gap in my reading. Mastercard just got another thrashing.

Really enjoyed this peice