MARCH 24, 2008 | 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 basics:
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 reported 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.
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:
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. 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 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 ...
J. Kingston Pierce
EDITOR'S NOTE: The Palms Spring Festival of Film Noir is now known as The Arthur Lyons Film Noir Festival.
The Dead Are Discreet (1974; Jacob Asch) ... Buy this book
"Trouble in Paradise" (1985, The New Black Mask # 1; Jacob Asch)
The Second Coming: Satanism in America (1970)...Buy this book
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The crime fiction editor of January Magazine, the guiding force behind its blog offshoot, The Rap Sheet, and a proud resident of Seattle, Washington, J. Kingston Pierce is also the author of several non-fiction books, including America's Historic Trails with Tom Bodett (KQED Books, 1997) and San Francisco, You're History! (Sasquatch Books, 1995). He's currently completing work on a collection of essays about Seattle's eccentric past.
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