Payback (by Lou Manfredo)

Lou Manfredo’s latest story for EQMM, “Sundown,” appears in our current issue (March/April 2022). In it he brings back some characters who featured in a series of stories published in this magazine between 2009 and 2013. Those five previous tales starred Gus Oliver, constable and later unofficial private investigator in the small town of Central Islin, Long Island, with cameo appearances by his grandson Jo-Jo. The new Central Islin story in our current issue fast forwards nineteen years from 1960 to 1979 and finds Gus retired and Jo-Jo on the local police force—but consulting his grandfather on cases. Lou Mandredo is also the author of the Joe Rizzo series of novels and stories. His honors include having a story chosen for The Best of the Best American Mystery Stories: The First Ten Years, edited by Otto Penzler. In this post, he connects the urge to write to a passion for reading.  —Janet Hutchings

So—what have you been up to these past couple of years?  Doing some traveling, visiting old friends, making new ones, seeing new places?  Or, maybe, not so much.  Yeah.  I get it.      

But here’s our silver lining:  we are readers.  Each and every one of us, readers.  And so, yes, we have been traveling, we have been seeing old friends and making new ones, visiting new places—often via a newly arrived issue of EQMM.  I’ve also been spending lots of days and nights in Boston with my old buddies, Spenser and Hawk, and a new bestie, Sunny Randall.  And, being so close to Paradise, Massachusetts, I naturally dropped in on Jesse Stone a time or two.  And thanks to my local public library, most of the expenses for such prolonged travel have been quite negligible.  Nil, in fact.

And while engaged in this binge reading, I was reminded of something, a very important moment in my life.  It was on a long-ago Sunday afternoon in December, and I had just seen “From Russia, With Love” at my neighborhood movie house.  I rushed home to immediately report my astonishing discovery of James Bond to my father, giving a glowing review of the film and the embodiment of all things Bond, Sean Connery.

“Bond?” my father said, then led me to the stack of paperbacks piled beside his bed and rummaged through it.  “Here,” he said, handing me a book, “it’s one of the novels the movies are based on.”

It was Dr. No.  Remember that one?  I have good cause to never forget it.  Not yet even a teenager, I was being entrusted with a real -life, grown-up novel.  No more Hardy Boys.  Bond, James Bond.  Although too young at the time to fully realize it, a torch had been passed.

And so I reflected on all that as I read my way through these current times.  You see, way back on that long ago December Sunday, I was even then facing a demon beyond my control:  Seventh grade French class and Florence McBaron, school teacher.  The remembrance of irregular French verbs, combined with the steely-eyed glare of ol’ Flo, still stirs my nape.   Yikes.  But with the help of musings from Ian Fleming, all that paralyzing terror could be erased, temporarily at least, and replaced instead with an energizing excitement as Bond and I flew off to face dangerous adventures and, best of all, meet yet another beautiful heroine.

So, okay, I now thought.  Bring it on, COVID.  Spenser will rescue me, just as Tom Sawyer had after a particularly tragic Little League strike-out with the bases loaded; just as Huck Finn had when a nose pimple threatened my social standing at school; just as Henry Gregor Felson and his hot-rodding teenage creations had on a rainy, dismal vacation day at my grandmother’s summer bungalow.  Me and a good read.  Tough combo to defeat.

Is any of this sounding familiar?  Of course it is.  Dedicated readers know exactly what I’m talking about.

All this factored heavily into why I first began to write.  Over the years, I have been honored to meet many writers, some famous, some not so much, but all talented and conscientious purveyors of finely crafted alternative realities for us to laugh or cry in, play or tremble, love or hate, find tragedy or joy and maybe, sometimes, take solace in.  No small task.  It occurs to me that despite meeting so many writers, I don’t recall asking or being asked, what actually motivates anyone to face that dreaded blank page and dig in their heels to fill it.  What indeed.

But maybe I’ll save that for another time and simply say this much, and I suspect it would apply to every writer everywhere throughout history.  Sometimes in the small, dark hours before dawn, I find myself stirring and wondering:  Is someone, somewhere in the world, at that very moment, reading a novel of mine, a short story, perhaps an essay such as this one?  And is it possible that read, despite the often-dark tones of my work, is somehow distracting or easing some of that reader’s grief or pain, boredom or loneliness, fear or anxiety?

I’ve come to view my writing as payback, probably equally owed by all writers.  Payback of my part of a debt due the Hardy Boys, Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, Holmes and Marlowe, Wolfe and Spade, Mason and all the Robert B. Parker boys and girls of Boston, with a special duty of debt owed to Salinger and Hemingway, Irwin Shaw, and William Goldman.

Yes, it’s a massive debt, and one I realize I can never fully repay.  But I intend to do my best to put a very large dent in it.

So, in retrospect, maybe that’s why writers choose to face that daunting blank page.

Seems an excellent reason now, doesn’t it?

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6 Responses to Payback (by Lou Manfredo)

  1. Great piece, Lou! I remember my own love of reading beginning in Elementary School courtesy of a teacher who would read us a chapter a day from a child-themed novel–The Lion’s Paw, Black Beauty, Treasure Island, etc…Wonderful memory. Your story “Sundown” is terrific!

  2. jeffbaker307 says:

    I still have fond memories of the reading of my much-younger years that made me a writer. I bought some of Robert Arthur’s “Three Investigators recently that I hadn’t read back in the day. And i had to look up Henry Feltson but I remember reading a few of his books!

    • lou manfredo says:

      Jeff, along with over twenty original Hardy Boy hardcovers from my young days, I still have the battered old copy of Felsen’s HOT ROD, probably his best book. I actually reread it about a year ago.

  3. Nancy Favilla says:

    Glad to see new stories by Lou Manfredo. Have enjoyed all the Rizzo books and look forward to new mysteries. Keep ’em coming!

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