“Bookends” (by Lou Manfredo)

Lou Manfredo’s stories for EQMM include a series of five classical whodunits set in the mid twentieth-century on Long Island (a series we were very sorry to see end!) as well as some of the dark crime tales for which he is perhaps better known. One of his noir stories, “Case Closed,” can be found in a volume to be released next week: The Best of the Best American Mystery Stories: The First Ten Years, edited by Otto Penzler. But the author is also a novelist, with three books out in a series starring Brooklyn cop Joe Rizzo (Rizzo’s War, Rizzo’s Fire, and Rizzo’s Daughter). In a starred review of Rizzo’s Fire, Kirkus Reviews called Rizzo “the most authentic cop in contemporary crime fiction.” After reading Lou’s account of how his own love for reading began, I imagine readers who haven’t discovered his fiction yet will want to do so, and we’ve got a new Manfredo story coming up later this year in EQMM. —Janet Hutchings

I suspect the most impossible of tasks would be to find a writer who had not first been a reader; a voracious one, more than likely.

I’ve recently had occasion to contemplate that while sitting at my writing desk, fiddling with a new ribbon for my Smith-Corona. (Yes, I confess: I write on an electric typewriter. I am a proud and defiant dinosaur). My eyes had fallen upon the bookshelf opposite my desk to what I consider to be my most valuable and cherished possessions: twenty-seven hardcover volumes of original Hardy Boys mysteries and a single hardcover of Follow My Leader by James B. Garfield.

Those books represent my first experiences with the magic of reading, the magic which, years after its discovery, transitioned me from reader to reader-writer. Each glaringly blank sheet of paper I now wind into my Smith-Corona is directly descended from pages of those childhood books and the defining significance of the manner in which they arrived into my life.

Growing up, I didn’t see too much of my dad. He worked two jobs, leaving at about nine-thirty in the morning and returning after midnight. I usually left for school before he woke and went to sleep long before he returned home. But we always made up for it by spending quality time together on weekends, and with the occasional special surprise.

And thus entered the magic when I would periodically awaken to the warm reminder that although I didn’t see him during the week, I did have a very loving father.

Sitting on the night table beside my bed I would find a package tightly wrapped in plain brown paper. My dad had placed it there after midnight. I knew what the package held: One of the very same Hardy Boys mysteries still, all these years later, neatly arranged on my bookshelf, most in their original dustcovers, some with the dollar-twenty-five price stickers still affixed.

The brown paper wrapping, deliberately placed by my dad, had enhanced the thrill of discovery. Which volume lay beneath this time? The Twisted Claw? Footprints Under the Window? While the Clock Ticked? The mystery, you see, began before I had even laid eyes upon the actual book.

Looking back, I eventually realized how much I had learned from those novels: things which remained deep in my psyche to be mined years later when I began writing short stories. I had experienced that tingling, cozy feeling a book, in particular a mystery, could instill in a young boy tucked away in his warm bed on a cold night, a circle of reading light the room’s only illumination. Nothing quite equals that.

I remember once raiding my piggy bank of quarters and dimes and heading to the neighborhood five-and-ten store. There I bought a shiny, thin silver flashlight and two batteries. That night, after my official bedtime, I tented myself under the bedcovers and, using my new flashlight, began reading my latest Hardy Boys treasure. It was a ritual I would repeat many times. Looking back on all my experiences in life—some fraught with actual danger—those early under-the-covers reading adventures remain among the most thrilling. The great rush of secret, warm excitement, so free of impurity or sin. Magic.

And then came Follow My Leader. That book was a gift from a family friend who, like my Dad, was an avid reader, always in the middle of a book, sometimes two simultaneously. Knowing that I was a newly recruited reader, she subtly nudged me to a broader experience. Follow My Leader is the story of a young boy about my age at the time, who is blinded in an accident. The story details his many struggles, failures, and ultimate triumph, culminating in his partnership with a seeing-eye dog he named, “Leader.” It is a sad, melancholy, and yet ultimately reaffirming story. The magic, I learned, could exist between book covers unadorned with exciting characters like Frank and Joe Hardy. My world had expanded beyond my Brooklyn neighborhood, beyond my age, beyond my circumstances. Magic.

And so finally we arrive at the point of this writing. My life has been bookended, you see, by two very special people: my dad with his imaginative delivery system and my beautiful daughter. When I was a boy, my dad conveyed that I was special to him. I was important. As an adult, my daughter managed to do the same.

You see, although I always safeguarded my Hardy Boys novels, circumstances had conspired to cause Follow My Leader to disappear into the foggy quagmire of time. It was simply gone. But apparently I had mentioned it somewhere along the line to my now adult daughter. A few years ago, on Christmas Day, a worn and well-read copy appeared, tightly wrapped in plain brown paper. She had tracked it down on her computer and bought it for me. I have never before, nor will I ever receive a more special or thoughtful gift.

And the irony had not been lost on either of us. My daughter utilized the very technology that I always avoid, to the extent modern demands will allow, in locating and purchasing the book; technology akin to that which now produces e-books. My childhood books sit a mere six feet from my desk, waiting. Occasionally, I slip one from the shelf and peruse it. I have actually reread some Hardy Boys from cover to cover over recent years. And they never fail to get the mysterious power of creativity flowing, and the magic—first experienced so long ago—returns with the familiarity of an old and dear friend.

I often wonder, what will sit on the shelf opposite the writer of the future? Perhaps obsolete, non-working electronic gizmos, their computer chips devoid of memory by the passage of time and inactivity.

But I know of one little boy who will someday have hard-copy books to hold and feel and smell; Hardy Boys and Leaders, Sawyers and Finns, Swifts and Rye Catchers, cowboys and pirates. Yeah, my grandson, just a baby now. I will be his first bookend. He’ll have to find the second on his own. Or, as in my case, someday he may luck out with an insightful, loving child of his own.

Want to do something special? Buy someone a book. A real book. Maybe, ten years from now, twenty years, thirty—they will hold it in their hands and think of you. And they’ll smile.

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6 Responses to “Bookends” (by Lou Manfredo)

  1. David Dean says:

    What a wonderful and moving piece, Lou. My folks did the same for me with “Tom Swift, Boy Scientist,” whose improbable adventures set my world ablaze with possibilities. I still think fondly of those volumes, but sadly own not a one. Thanks for this, and best of luck with your latest.

    • Lou Manfredo says:

      Hey, David, thank you. Sorry you no longer have those books, their presence is magical.
      Forgive me for not touching base with you regarding your two latest EQMM stories—enjoyed them very much. Things were a bit hectic here–hope to see you at pre Edgar gathering, will explain.
      Best,
      Lou

  2. Ted Hertel says:

    That brought back so many memories for me, Lou. I, too, have a shelf that is full of Hardy Boys books behind me as I write (though I admit to doing it on the computer). Those books encouraged some of my first writings (The Hertel Boys Solve …. whatever “clever” idea I could come up with at the moment). But it was your thoughts of how you acquired your collection and how it was ultimately bookended by your daughter that touched me even more. Thanks for sharing.

    • Lou manfredo says:

      Ted,
      Thank you for your note. I suspected I would be touching a writer or two with the piece— regardless of our diverse backgrounds and histories, we all share so much common ground. I’m glad you enjoyed it; it brought great happiness to me as I worked on it.
      Best regards,
      Lou

  3. Robert Lopresti says:

    Good piece. I never cared much for the Hardy Boys (preferring the Three Investigators) but I remember Follow My Leader. There is a scene where the boy is Trying to adjust to his blindness and thinks he wil have to put his books in order so he knows which one he is reading – and then the gutwrenching moment when he realizes that makes no sense; he can’t read them.

    I, on the other hand, remember reading and enjoying your story in New Jersey Noir, about a lawyer helping a cop in Camden.

    • Lou manfredo says:

      Dear Robert,
      Thanks for your kind words. I am sure there are many people who carry memories of LEADER, it was a deeply moving book. I think it’s still available and hopefully will attract new readers for generations to come.
      Again, thank you for your support.
      Best,
      Lou

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