Monday, March 24, 2008

Lyons Ends His Roar

Somebody said to me not long ago that the majority of her regrets pertained to things she had done during her life. I admitted to the opposite--that most of my regrets are related to things I did not do, chances I did not take, people I did not get to know better. I was reminded of that conversation this morning, as I read at Jiro Kimura’s The Gumshoe Site about the unexpected death, at age 62, of detective novelist Arthur Lyons, the creator of Los Angeles gumshoe Jacob Asch. He and I had been planning to do a telephone interview in the near future, but I’d had to put it off while trying to finish a non-fiction book about San Francisco’s history. I guess our conversation is now off permanently. The Desert Sun, covering the Palm Springs, California, community in which Lyons lived, provides the basic facts of the case:
Arthur Lyons, a man as colorful as the characters in his film noir books and films, died early Friday at Desert Regional Medical Center at age 62.

Part of the family that owns and operates Lyons English Grille in Palm Springs, he was a former city councilman, co-founder of the Palm Springs Festival of Film Noir and a popular writers conference, and a successful novelist and nonfiction writer.

His wife, Barbara Lyons, said he suffered head injuries from a fall and had a stroke this past week.

A private celebration of his life is being planned at his home.

“He’s really been a force in this community for a long time,” said Camelot Theatres owner Rozene Supple, who hosted Lyons’ Film Noir Festival.

“He was always great to work with and we hope to continue the Film Noir Festival indefinitely.”

Barbara Lyons said her husband had already booked the films for this year’s festival, May 29-June 1.

“This is going to be a tribute to Arthur,” she said. “He had everything in line.”
I was lucky enough to meet and interview Lyons in November 1980. Not long out of college, and only months after I’d taken a bus from my home in Portland, Oregon, down to Santa Barbara, California, to talk with distinguished private-eye fictionist Ross Macdonald, I hopped aboard another bus headed south. This time my destination was the chic desert town of Palm Springs. By then Lyons had written five novels featuring Asch, a half-Jewish newspaper reporter turned private eye. The most recent of those was Castles Burning (1979), but it would soon be followed by Hard Trade (1981).

The blond and muscular Lyons was then just reaching his 35th birthday, as I remember, and he greeted me cordially. My memory is that we started out talking at his well-appointed trailer home, sharing glasses of white wine, but eventually moved to dinner at his family’s restaurant. I had packed along a tape recorder, and wound up with several tapes of terrific material, most of which I published as an interview in Willamette Week, an “alternative paper” in Portland. We talked about Lyons’ early and frustrating efforts to publish science-fiction short stories. (“I wrote to a throwaway, mimeographed little magazine in Regina, Saskatchewan--I don’t even remember the name of it,” Lyons said. “And the guy wrote me a letter back saying, don’t ever send him anything again; it was the worst story he’d ever read in his life, and I had the nerve to send him this.”) We discussed the dubious value of censoring violence in crime fiction. (“To portray violence in a non-violent way, to me, is doing a disservice to people, because that’s when you start getting people responding to violence. The whole thing on TV about not showing violence, cleaning it up, is more harmful, I think, than making somebody ill with it.”) We talked about the need for at least some realism in fictional portrayals of private investigators. (“You’ll never find Asch doing anything unlikely. He will not usually find stuff through coincidence. He’s a plodder. That’s what private detection is, going through papers. All of Asch’s cases come out of paper. He works with paper more than he does people, whereas in Ross Macdonald and with most of those guys, they do it with information people tell them. But there aren’t too many people out there who are going to spill their guts to an investigator, unless the guy has a handle on what’s going on.”) And I asked Lyons at one point whether he saw a resurgence of the hard-boiled hero in detective stories. His response (most of which didn’t make it into print):
If so, it’s because people want to fight back. They’re tired of being victimized by the violence of people who have decided to be predators. That’s why we’re going to see a resurgence of capital punishment. Consequently, there probably is a resurgence of the hard-boiled hero, because people would love to punch a few faces in, and the only way most of these people are ever going to do it is through literature and through the movies. They’d be scared to do it in real life. This is not an age for Agatha Christie.

The anonymity of society also makes it worse for people. The cultic response is a searching for power. I don’t believe, like Ross Macdonald and the Freudians, that sex is the major driving force in our lives. I think it’s power. ...

There was a story I wrote into The Dead Are Discreet [his first novel, published in 1974], the best cop story ever. A guy in the [Los Angeles Police Department] with the most kills on the force, told me how he and his partner went down to El Dorado [Street], or something, where they were getting little old ladies mugged, all over 60 years old. So this guy puts on hose with hair sticking through, high heels, [and] a gray wig, and he and his partner [dressed in a similar way] get their little shopping baskets and go down there between 9 and midnight. One guy’s walking down one side of the street, the other goes on the other side.

Finally, they’re walking down and this car pulls up slowly on one of them and [the man inside] says, “Hi, honey, why don’t you get in the car?” And the cop looks in and the guy isn’t the guy they’re looking for, so he says, “Fuck off,” and he keeps walking up the street. And [the cop] says the car sat there idling for a second, then just tore away from the curb. It goes screaming up the street at about 50 miles an hour, flips a U, jumps two wheels on the other side of the sidewalk, and starts mowing down parking meters heading at the back of his partner, who’s just walking on the other side of the street. Bang, bang, bang, bang go the parking meters.

The cop says, “I grab my purse, and I shake the goddamn .357 out and go into a stance and open up. My partner hears the roar of the motor behind him, he jumps into a doorway and takes out his .357 and starts pumping into the car. You should have seen the look on this guy’s face, two old ladies opening up on him from two sides of the street.” They caught him in Hollywood five minutes later, which means he was going 120 through the city streets. They pulled him over, goddamn bullet holes all over the car, and they asked why he did it. He said he’d gone from bar to bar all night long, trying to pick up a girl, and everybody kept shutting him down. He saw this “old lady” on the street, and that was his last resort. He says, “When she told me to fuck off, I saw this other one on the other side of the street, and said, ‘I’m going to kill her.’”

That’s how ineffectual we all feel.
As I read through The Desert Sun’s account of Arthur Lyons’ life and career, as well as the reader comments attached to it, I learned several things I didn’t know before about this author. For instance, how he served for four years on the Palm Springs City Council. How he was given a star on the Palm Springs Walk of Stars last May. And that he was married--and a grandfather, to boot. When I talked with Lyons 28 years ago, he was definitely a bachelor enjoying the blessings of serial female companionship. I was reminded of his books, not only the 11 Asch novels (beginning with The Dead Are Discreet and concluding with 1994’s False Pretenses), but also his non-fiction works about Satanism and film noir. Kimura’s brief obituary recalls that during the time he was still writing the Asch adventures, he took time out to pen a couple of non-Asch novels (Unnatural Causes and Physical Evidence) with former Los Angeles County chief medical examiner-coroner Thomas Noguchi. And one of his Asch books, Castles Burning (1979)--which I chose last year, for a special Rap Sheet feature, as the “most unjustly overlooked, criminally forgotten, or underappreciated” crime novel in memory--was made into a 1986 TV movie called Slow Burn, starring Eric Roberts as Asch. I don’t think I have ever seen Slow Burn, but Lyons seemed high on it in a note he wrote me in the early ’80s:
There is additional good news. Universal [Studios] has optioned CASTLES BURNING with the view of a two-hour pilot for a TV series. They would be putting Jacob Asch in Palm Springs permanently and we would be shooting down here. I’ve come to terms with them and would be acting as script supervisor, location advisor, et. al, as well as doing the screenplay for the pilot with Joel Schumacher, who would be producing the show. (He did “The Incredible Shrinking Woman” and “Amateur Night at the Dixie Bar and Grill.”) Of course, all that means nothing if the networks don’t bite, but with Universal behind it, we’ve got a better shot. The only trouble is, all three networks’ time slots are just filled to the brim with stupid, gimmicky, pure-shit detective shows. When will they learn and go for quality and not quantity? Are we forever doomed to be subjected to “Charlie’s Angels”?
Unfortunately, despite Schumacher’s involvement, Slow Burn didn’t spark any enthusiasm with the networks. You can still buy it on videotape, however.

After hearing this morning about Lyons’ demise, I dug out my file on him, filled with newspaper reviews of his books, a pencil-marked transcription of our long-ago interview, and a profile of him and his work that I wrote but apparently never published. There were also a couple of black-and-white studio shots of him from the early 1980s, one of which I have installed at the top of this post. Back then, I imagined Lyons becoming a star of the genre, right along with Robert B. Parker, Stuart M. Kaminsky, Stephen Greenleaf, and Tony Hillerman. Yet he disappeared from the world of crime fiction during the early Clinton era, turning his attention instead to film.

Over the last two years, though, I’ve been reminded of Arthur Lyons on a number of occasions. The first time was in the fall of 2006, when we polled Rap Sheet readers to find out which long-missing crime novelist they would most like to see turning out new books again. While Lyons’ wasn’t the name most often mentioned (that honor went instead to Jonathan Valin), he ranked high among the runners-up. His name was highlighted most recently for me when author Mark Coggins (Runoff) wrote a series of posts for this page about the short-lived, 1980s resurrection of Black Mask magazine. The first issue of The New Black Mask featured a short story, “Trouble in Paradise,” by Lyons. In it, Coggins explained, “Lyons’ Los Angeles gumshoe, Jacob Asch, investigates the scuba-diving death of the son of a wealthy commodities brokerage firm owner. Although he had eight novels to his credit at the time it was written, ‘Trouble’ was the first Asch short story Lyons had written.”

During the course of my editing Coggins’ series, he and I talked about the possibility of my finding Lyons again and talking him into a new interview, 28 years after my original one. With Coggins’ help, I found an e-mail address for the author, and shot off an invitation, hoping he would remember me from Willamette Week. His reply was quick and encouraging. He said that “I am still writing, but I am writing a new character.” And though he insisted, “I hate computers and e-mails,” he gave me a telephone number at which I could call him sometime. “I would be more then happy to answer all of your questions,” Lyons wrote in conclusion. I immediately dashed an e-mail note back, saying I would be contacting him as soon as I was finished with or at least nearing the end of my San Francisco book.

I was still looking forward to doing that interview when I read of Arthur Lyons’ passing.

Detective fiction has lost a once-important contributor. Palm Springs has lost a favorite son. Film noir has lost a champion. I regret now not having jumped on the chance to interview Arthur Lyons again. And there’s nothing I can do to change that.

Talk about feeling ineffectual ...

UPDATE: The Desert Sun reports that “A celebration of Arthur Lyons’ life will be held from noon to 5 p.m. [on] April 5 at an ‘intimate gathering of special fans, friends, and family’ at the Lyons home in Palm Springs … Anyone interested in attending can RSVP at [760] 864-9760.” I wish I lived anywhere nearby, and could attend.

READ MORE:Death Noted: Arthur Lyons (1946-2008),” by Steve Lewis (Mystery*File); “Arthur Lyons, R.I.P.,” by James Reasoner (Rough Edges).


Martin Edwards said...

Sorry to hear about Lyons - I read and enjoyed several of the Asch books. I'm sure you're right about regretting the things you don't do - life is so short. I met Julian Symons towards the end of his life and found him very pleasant, and encouraging, even though his reputation was formidable. But I wish I'd talked to him at much greater length about his own work, and about that of his contemporaries, so many of whom are no longer with us.

Stephen Miller said...

This is incredibly sad. I first discovered Lyons when I read about him in the 1984 Newsweek article on crime fiction that also introduced me to Elmore Leonard and Donald Westlake. I always thought he was much more talented than other authors who received much more in the way of fame and fortune and I was disappointed that Asch seemed to slip away without a trace. Lyons was not an innovator by any means, but a solid writer of the California PI. An undervalued talent.

I'm flying across the country tomorrow, and I've just decided what book I'll be packing for the flight -- an Arthur Lyons title published with love in the UK by No Exit Press.

Mark Coggins said...

An excellent tribute, Jeff. I'm still shocked at how quickly it happened.

Ali Karim said...

Very moving peice about a writer I am shamed to say I never sampled, but will now, thanks to you.

Thanks for an interesting insight -



smudd677 said...

I really enjoyed what you wrote about my dad I emailed it to my mother Barbara, He was a great man and was loved.

DeathRowsFinest said...

I just want it to be known that I am Arthurs son, and that his wife Barbara didnt even have consideration to tell me he passed away. It would have been nice to at least know about his death... Thanks again Barbara, class act...

Anonymous said...

i met arthur about 24 years ago. He was a pleasant fellow. I have known his son, Daniel for many years. Arthur would have been proud of how great a young man his only true blood son is. If only his wife and her son had not separated the two.

Anonymous said...

I did not get to really know my biological dad. The time we spent together was too short. I, like many sons who grow up without a dad in their lives everyday, appreciate the positive comments left on this site. Wish I had known him as so many of you did, unfortunately my dad's remarriage made that difficult.
Daniel Bresler