A Mystery: How Can You Write What You Cannot Read?

By Sheldon Gordon

Published March 25, 2005, issue of March 25, 2005.
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TORONTO — When Toronto-based mystery writer Howard Engel won the Writers’ Trust of Canada’s lifetime achievement award earlier this month, few people were surprised. The 74-year-old Canadian author has an impressive history: He’s been published in 13 languages, and has broken down cultural and literary barriers with his 11 popular novels about private eye Benny Cooperman, a Jewish Canadian sleuth.

What is surprising, however, is that Engel continues to write. Four years ago, he suffered a stroke that left him with a rare condition that could prove particularly devastating for an author: the inability to read.

One summer morning in 2001, Engel opened his front door, picked up the newspaper and realized he couldn’t understand what was written on the page. The paper’s layout and pictures looked familiar, but the print seemed like a foreign alphabet. “I couldn’t make out individual words,” he recalled. “Even very familiar words, like my own name, were impossible for me to read.”

Engel, a widower, took a taxi to the nearest hospital with the aid of his son Jacob, who was then 11 years old. “The first thing I thought of was my son, and where he was going to spend the night,” Engel told the Forward. “Then the whole idea of [not] writing hit me like a ton of bricks. But I just kept putting one foot in front of the other.”

The stroke did not impair Engel’s ability to walk, talk or write. But his condition, known as alexia sine agraphia, forced him to relearn how to read. Today he reads at a third-grade level, and still has difficulty recalling names. When writing, he relies on an assistant to read back sections to him, and on word-processing software to perform text searches for specific paragraphs and words.

His latest mystery novel, “Memory Book,” took a year longer to produce than his previous books, said Cynthia Good, his longtime editor, “but surprisingly, considering his condition, it was very accomplished. He still brings to bear an incredible intelligence, understanding and sweetness.”

That is exactly what fans have come to expect from Engel since 1980, when his alter ego, Benny Cooperman, made his debut in the small town of Grantham, Ontario — the fictional version of St. Catharines, Ontario, where Engel grew up, 12 miles north of the American border in the vineyard-rich Niagara peninsula.

Reviews often characterize Benny as a “soft-boiled” P.I. “He’s everything that Sam Spade isn’t,” Engel said. “He’s Jewish, not gentile; Canadian, not American; small town, not big city, and he turns sick at the sight of blood. He may think he’s a nebbish, but he’s a better detective than he gives himself credit for being.”

The gently humorous, 30-something Cooperman munches chopped-egg sandwiches and juggles relationships with girlfriend Anna Abraham, his parents, and his brother the doctor. Benny is not a high-society operative, Engel said: “A bank president doesn’t walk through his office door with an assignment. It’s more likely that someone’s cleaning lady recommended him.”

This past August, Engel received a standing ovation when he accepted the inaugural Grant Allen Award for his pioneering work in Canadian crime writing. Engel noted that Allen, Canada’s first crime writer, had to pretend to be American or British to have his work published in the late 19th century. “He couldn’t write about Canadian themes or use Canadian locations,” Engel said.

Engel was the first mystery author to break this barrier, nearly a century later. “Benny Cooperman is a character who, somewhere in the collective literary unconscious of this country, was crying to be invented,” wrote Toronto Star book critic Philip Marchand.

Although the Writers’ Trust of Canada has recognized Engel’s “lifetime achievement,” in truth Engel came to his groundbreaking literary work late in life.

Born into a Conservative Jewish family — his father was president of Congregation B’nai Israel, the only synagogue in St. Catharines — Engel absorbed his mother’s love of literature. She exposed him to Proust, but also to Sam Spade, Sherlock Holmes and Nero Wolfe. After graduating from McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, Engel spent a year teaching high school, and then veered toward journalism.

Hooking up with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, he spent three years as a freelance radio contributor from European capitals such as London, Paris, Madrid and Nicosia, Cyprus. An Engel interview with Archbishop Makarios, the first president of independent Cyprus, triggered a renewed violence on the divided island over inflammatory comments made by the archbishop about future relations between Greek and Turkish Cypriots.

Returning to Canada in the mid-1960s, he produced arts programs for CBC Radio. His work included “specials” on Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Archibald MacLeish, Samuel Beckett and Raymond Chandler. But he began to feel, he said, “like a eunuch in a harem,” and decided to try his own hand at fiction. After the breakup of his first marriage, to author Marian Engel, “I was casting about for something to do,” he said. In Benny Cooperman, he found his calling — at age 50.

In Engel’s “Memory Book,” the sleuth suffers the same neurological disorder as his creator. Whacked on the head, Benny is found in a Dumpster next to a dead woman he cannot remember. He struggles to discover the cause of both the woman’s murder and his own injury. But he can’t drive, or even leave the hospital. He has to rely on the evidence gathered by other people, including his girlfriend (whose name he can’t recall).

For Engel, “the whole act of reliving his experience through Benny was rehabilitating,” Good said. “I think it’s his way of working out what happened to him. He is a keen observer of life — including his own.”

Fans can soon judge for themselves. In addition to another Benny Cooperman novel, Engel is currently working on his memoir.

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