Arthur Lyons writes a mean hard-boiled detective novel. There is a no-nonsense quality to his prose and plotting in the finest tradition of the mystery subgenre he has chosen to work in. This is his eighth Jacob Asch mystery, an exploration of the glittery sleaze of the Los Angeles rock music scene that reeks of authenticity.
Admittedly, there are a few glitches, most of which involve descriptions of the music itself -- always a daunting, near impossible task. But Lyons is guilty of a particularly noisome portrayal of a punk group, replete with every cliche' a veteran of the '60s might conjure up. He attempts to redeem this prejudice by making the female lead singer of the group a PhD in theoretical physics, a somewhat familiar way out of his stereotypical bind. Even more remarkable is the complete absence of any proponents of the new wave in a book set in the pop music world of the '80s.
Lyons stands on firmer ground with his exegesis of the business end of the rock scene. Jacob Asch's client this time around, one Fred Segal, is a rock promoter who suspects that someone is trying to ruin him. His suspicions are confirmed during a party he's throwing in his Hollywood hills mansion, when his cocaine is switched with pure heroin, resulting in the death of washed-up rock star Phil Cooney, a Jim Morrison caricature.
Two more deaths occur before the nefarious murderer is uncovered, and yet another death is tied in to provide a salient clue. Although the seasoned mystery reader will probably guess who done it midway through the book, the killer's motive remains obscure throughout, even though Lyons doesn't cheat in his exposition. So the question becomes why, instead of who. After all the violence, we are offered a satisfyingly low-key denouement, an effective contrast to all the preceding dirty talk and fisticuffs.
Jacob Asch is stomped once or twice in the time-honored tradition of West Coast private eyes. He even manages a couple of wisecracks while he's being roughed up, in homage (or perhaps in supplication) to the masters of the genre. But generally the tone is on the somber side. Lyons seems genuinely disturbed by the waste and phoniness of the rock music industry whose underside he so meticulously examines, like an entomologist upending a rock. He sketches in scenes featuring the parents of victimized kids that are quite moving, and yet these bits are not extraneous. They push the carefully orchestrated plot along in workmanlike fashion without wasting words.
But most of the time Lyons is content to let the incidents and characters speak for themselves. Jacob Asch doesn't waste words, either. Born in the wrong era, he pines for the days of Bogie and Baby as he runs himself ragged for his client, assisted from time to time by a Beach-Boyish songwriter named Carey Stack and a sexually aggressive, flaky actress who calls herself Sturgis. She's in love with Asch, which is the reason she shows up at an opportune moment, earning Asch's gratitude, if not his undying affection.
And then there's Momaday, the American Indian policeman who has just earned his doctorate in cultural anthropology; J.D. Walton, a black rock promoter who speaks in dulcet Cantabrigian tones; and Julia Roth, a hot mama who gets even hotter when a plugged-in clock radio falls into her bathtub. They are all originals, and Jacob Asch is a pretty engaging character himself -- an ex-journalist who just happens to be good at uncovering facts.
"Three With a Bullet" is a quick, fun read in the tradition that spawned Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, John D. MacDonald and Stuart Kaminsky. It's a tasty confection, spiced with humor and leavened with pathos. Fans of the hard-boiled school will rate it fairly high, and even those who can take or leave their tough guys will have a pretty good time. Arthur Lyons keeps you turning the pages, and his romantic detective hero is intriguing enough that you might even be moved to go on more than one case with him. What more can a fan ask for?