Likewise, when I was researching some background material for this article, there was a dearth of information on the author. Sadly, his back catalogue is largely out of print – I accrued my own collection via a fortuitous trip to a secondhand bookstore 15 years ago, little thinking that the complete Jakob Asch series of 11 books would be so influential in my own reading.
Arthur Lyons was born in Los Angeles in 1946, and moved to the Californian desert resort of Palm Springs aged 11. He graduated from the University of California, Santa Barbara in 1967 and worked in his family’s restaurant business back in Palm Springs before becoming a successful writer. In 1970, his first book was published. It was a non-fiction work focusing on the rise of religious cults and Satanism in America. However, his status as a classic crime fiction author was established by The Dead Are Discreet in 1974.
Loss of faith
The book introduced private eye Jakob Asch. Asch is a 34-year-old half-Jewish man. He was a reporter for the fictional Los Angeles Chronicle, and is no stranger to the law having been incarcerated for six months for refusing to reveal one of his sources. He’s lost faith in journalism as a career and the newspaper world’s loss is the private detective profession’s gain. Asch investigates the ritual murder of a wealthy young woman – something which drew on Lyons’ own interest in Satanism and religious cults. The Dead Are Discreet also deals with pornography and is written in a stark and unsettling style.
Asch is a cynical and straight-talking man who will be as blunt with a client as a criminal. He’s witty, compassionate and has a strong moral core. “You’ll never find Asch doing anything unlikely,” Lyons said. “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.”
The paper detective
Despite Lyons’ explanation, what the series reveals is that Asch’s easy-going charm and unerring tenacity do in fact draw the necessary information out of those he investigates. He is equally at home investigating a wealthy businessman or a politician as he is tackling pimps and junkies, and will put himself in danger to get a result. Los Angeles is a city with a sliding social scale, and Asch is our moral guide to the truth behind the façade.
Another highlight of the series is All God’s Children (1975), where a mixed up teenage girl goes missing after getting involved in both a criminal biker gang called Satan’s Warriors and an insidious religious commune known as the World of God. However, Asch discovers that the reasons behind her disappearance lie much closer to home, with a dark tale of child abuse emerging.
Three With a Bullet (1984) offers a no-holds-barred portrayal of the LA music scene with the death of a faded superstar, and Asch’s subsequent investigation into the life of sex and drugs that lies behind the glitzy curtain of fame. In Fast Fade (1987) Hollywood comes under the microscope when a prominent director proves to be so hated that anyone working on his set is a suspect in his murder, leading Asch into a particularly troublesome web of secrets and lies.
The best of the bunch
My favourite, however, has to be False Pretenses (1994) which is the the last in the series. Here Asch is in the frame after a murder takes place in his office. He attempts to wriggle free of the clutches of some particularly dogged LA detectives but help is at hand in the form of The Bitch Goddess, an icy blonde Hollywood detective who joins forces with him – on more than one level – to help prove his innocence.
Lyons was quite simply one of the best hardboiled mystery writers of the 1970s and 80s, frequently mentioned during his career in the same breath as Chandler, Hammett, and Ross Macdonald. America’s own Golden Age of crime writing, typified by the smart-mouthed, laconic and world weary private investigators like Spade or Marlowe, looms large throughout Lyon’s work. Without doubt he was influenced by the pulp crime tradition before and after World War II and you’ll feel the gritty world of gangsters and dames resonating in his writing. The appearance of religious cults, criminal gangs, drugs, boxing, artists, musicians, marital disputes, and Hollywood in the stories provided what was a contemporary spin on the seedy side of LA so beloved of Chandler et al. And it’s all delivered in rat-a-tat dialogue and staccato prose.
Lyons’ books can be found in secondhand bookstores, on Amazon and eBay – but not all of them. With the popularity of crime fiction, it’s a good time for a publisher to pick them up and re- release them in print and digitally.