Thursday, July 26, 2012

About Terry Manion by Dick Lochte


Terry Manion, the private detective protagonist of my two New Orleans-based novels, BLUE BAYOU and THE NEON SMILE (both now happily back in print as trade paperbacks and as eBooks, from Perfect Crime Books), began his fictional life in a supporting role as a loser and a victim.

The loser part was explained by his back story. Manion’s mother died in the delivery room and he was raised by a distant but indulgent father, growing up protected and somewhat isolated from the harsher side of life by wealth and social position. He attended the best schools, married well and was just beginning a career in the diplomatic corps when his father committed suicide by jumping from a high window of the bank where he had been president.

Suddenly orphaned and ostracized for his father’s sins (a rumor floated through the city that Manion’s father had embezzled a small fortune that the bank was keeping secret from its depositors), Terry found himself unprotected, unemployed, nearly penniless and divorced. As one of the book’s characters explains, “When Jack Manion took that ten-story jump onto St. Charles Avenue, he might as well have pulled his boy after him. Poor Terry’s been going downhill ever since.”

He was on the brink of suicide-by-bourbon when Nadia Welles, the elderly CEO of a statewide detective agency, rescued him, very much against his wishes. She felt obliged to help him because of an as yet unspecified relationship she’d had with his father, possibly going back to the time when she was one of the crescent city’s most infamous and successful madams. She saw to Manion’s drying out, then put him through a rigorous apprenticeship with her agency’s best sleuth, a former NOPD homicide detective named J.J. Legendre.

All of this was in Manion’s past the moment he appeared in my second novel, LAUGHING DOG. Like my debut book, SLEEPING DOG, its two main sleuths were Leo Bloodworth, a middle aged Los Angeles private eye, and his self-proclaimed “assistant,” Serendipity Dahlquist, a precocious teenager smarter, more resourceful and more pragmatic than he.

I wanted the sequel to delve a little deeper into the darker, more demented side of Southern California’s sunny paradise. Since Leo and Serendipity, being L.A. natives, were familiar with and adaptable to the city’s obvious and subtle challenges, I felt I needed a new character, preferably a capable one, who would get into trouble because of an unfamiliarity with the territory. I was thinking of PSYCHO’s self-confident private eye, Arbogast (a great Chandler-like name, by the way), strolling into Norman Bates’ house to be confronted by something quite beyond his expectation or capability.

Enter Terry Manion of New Orleans, searching for his ex-wife’s errant niece and convinced that surviving nearly a decade as a PI in the Crescent City has equipped him to handle anything he might find in the City of the Angels. Too young to have a memory of the Manson killings and too early for the Watts riots, he meet his own brand of nightmare at the hands of villains who in short order seduce, kidnap and hook him on drugs. My original plan was for him to be murdered, but he turned out to be such an odd, complex character, I wanted to find out more about him.

Because of that, and thanks to the efforts of Leo and Serendipity, he survives to become the lead of my third and fourth novels. BLUE BAYOU begins with Manion recovering from his West Coast vacation in rehab at a “spa” in Louisiana’s Evangeline country, with his string of hard luck not quite played out. He doesn’t know it but his mentor J.J. Legendre has been murdered, the death officially declared a suicide.

Because of Manion’s association with Legendre, three men have become suddenly interested in him -- an uninhibited, outspoken but oddly likeable cop named Eben Munn, Reeves Benedetto, the cool, handsome, over-educated son of the local Mafia don, and Marcus Steiner, a bestselling author and recovering addict who has asked to become his sobriety sponsor.

Even though Manion is back on home turf, living in his familiar house in the French Quarter, in close proximity of friends like Nadia Wells, he experiences a sense of uncertainty that keeps him an outsider. Some of it has to do with the diligence required to stay drug and booze-free in a paradise for the self-indulgent. Most of it is his determination to find out why J.J. Legendre was murdered and who did it.

In spite of interference from Munn, Benedetto and Steiner, among others, Manion succeeds. But it takes a couple of shootouts, several other murders, a Cajun Romeo and Juliet romance, the emergence of legalized gambling and a trip through the Louisiana swamplands with J.J.’s killer before the job is done. The novel ends with Manion seemingly on his way to happiness with Munn’s sister, Lucille.

THE NEON SMILE begins with Lucille accepting an invitation from her former lover to return to Boston. Trying to keep his mind off of the broken romance, Manion allows himself to be talked into working for Pierre Reynaldo, the exploitation king of cable TV. The assignment is for him to research the 30-year-old suicide in prison of an African American named Tyrone Pano, AKA the Panther Man, who’d been the leader of a militant organization called The Southern Cross. Reynaldo’s Crime Busters TV series is planning an episode exposing Pano as an FBI agent and his death as murder.

Manion discovers that his late mentor, J.J. Legendre, had been involved in Pano’s arrest during his years on the NOPD. At that point, the book takes a three decade backward leap, with Legendre guiding readers through New Orleans in the mid-1960s as he investigates not only Tyrone Pano’s supposed suicide but the murders of several young women by a killer calling himself the Meddler, a name used by a murderer back in the voodoo era of Marie Laveau.

In the course of nearly a third of the book, Legendre solves both crimes. But, thirty years later, Manion discovers that his mentor, the man he most respected, made a few mistakes and these old mistakes are having fatal consequences.

I wanted to write a novel about how the passage of time changes, or more to the point, doesn’t change things in New Orleans. It occurred to me that a comparison of the city as it was in the mid-Sixties, a period when it faced social and racial upheaval, to what was then the 1995 present, would suggest that the same old problems still existed.

My most vivid memories of Nola come from the late Sixties, which is when I moved away. Every time I have returned, even after Katrina, that period remains my point of reference. Neighborhoods change. Streetcars are replaced by busses. The river rises. Restaurants come and go. My family and friends grow older. But New Orleans remains oddly the same -- infuriatingly traditional and yet exotic, conservative and flamboyant, religious and decadent, violent and always exciting.

Because I am a New Orleans native who did a few odd jobs with a local detective agency during college, back when the novels were first published I was often asked how much of the material was autobiographical. Well, Manion is younger than I was when the books were written, and blond and thin and needs eyeglasses to see. (Michael Caine in THE IPCRESS FILE was my point of reference.) He’s divorced. He has an older sister. His mother died in childbirth and his father committed suicide. He’s a recovering addict. And he solves murders.

Other than that we’re practically identical.

Actually, some of Manion’s memories -- of a traveling salesman grandfather who took him on trips through the Cajun countryside, of school days and people and places and restaurants and night life -- are my memories, too. And, since we’re both still making memories, I haven’t written Terry off. There have been a couple of short stories. And, not long ago, I started a new Manion novel, tentatively titled DEAD MAN’S BLUES, set about five years after THE NEON SMILE, at the start of the new millennium.

In it, a young, very successful, very undisciplined local horror novelist (“a freaky follower of Ann Rice”) hires Manion to look for the diary of an executed murderer rumored to have sold his soul to the devil. In the course of a suspenseful and dangerous investigation, Manion will probably not have a confrontation with Satan, at least not literally. But he will finally discover the true story of his father’s relationship to Nadia Wells and whether Jack Manion’s death really was a suicide.

1 comment:

RJR said...

I enjoyed these two books and can't wait for the third! Once again John Boland and Perfect Crime make a good move.