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How to write when you can't read

Crime author Howard Engel refused to let a 2001 stroke rob him of his greatest pleasure

BRIAN BETHUNE September 3 2007
THE BACK PAGES

How to write when you can't read

Crime author Howard Engel refused to let a 2001 stroke rob him of his greatest pleasure

BRIAN BETHUNE September 3 2007

How to write when you can't read

books

Crime author Howard Engel refused to let a 2001 stroke rob him of his greatest pleasure

BRIAN BETHUNE

Of all the ways to learn that your brain has suffered an “insult,” as medical professionals like to call the effects of strokes, one of the oddest is to get up in the morning and discover your Toronto newspaper seemingly printed in a mix of Serbo-Croatian and Korean. When 70-year-old Howard Engel came back inside with his Globe and Mail that hot July day in 2001 and found he couldn’t read his own books either, the bestselling mystery novelist headed for the hospital. Tests confirmed Engel’s own assumption: stroke, left side, rear. His memory was shot—still is, for that matter, especially for names—and he had lost a quarter of his vision, on the upper right side. But the essence of the diagnosis was a rare and almost incomprehensible condition: alexia sine agraphia. The elegant combination of Greek and Latin words meant that while Engel could still write, he could no longer read.

It’s an understatement to call this a body blow to a man who writes for a living. But worse than the professional injury, as Engel’s graceful little memoir The Man Who Forgot Flow to Read (HarperCollins) makes clear, was the insult to his very identity. Howard Engel didn’t just read to work; he virtually lived to read. The son of a woman who read voraciously everything from mysteries to Proust and a father who would spin tall tales about “darkest Africa” at a moment’s notice, from childhood on Engel always had a book— or two or three—on the go. In conversation at a neighbourhood café patio, he calls himself “hard-wired for reading.”

Writing came much later. Over a five-week stretch in 1980, Engel crafted The Suicide Murders, the first of what are now 12 Benny Cooperman mysteries. They feature the

antithesis of the hard-boiled American dicks Engel and his mother had both delighted in. Benny’s Canadian, Jewish, devoted to choppedegg sandwiches, lives in a small town (a fictionalized version of Engel’s hometown of St. Catharines, Ont.) and feels sick at the sight of blood. He’s also enduringly popular.

In the summer of2001 that all seemed very far away. Engel’s memoir glides over the despair that must, at times, have gripped him, and over the nuts and bolts of his struggle to recapture what he could of his past life. But in his afterword the renowned neuroscientist (and writer) Oliver Sacks, whose classic work, The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat, inspired Engel’s title, is more forthcoming. Determined to read again, the novelist started working away at English print letter by letter as though it was hieroglyphic, Sacks notes, doing consciously what had been automatic. Engel had also brought his other senses to bear, tracing with his tongue the shapes of letters on the roof of his mouth or writing them in the air with his finger. Sacks calls Engel’s story one “of heroic determination, a testament to the resilience and creative adaptation of one man and his brain.”

What had truly sparked Sacks’s admiration was the fact—the neuroscientist calls it “astonishing”—that while struggling to bring his reading up to Grade 3 level, Engel had actually

written an entire Cooperman novel. The author is more modest; he had simply followed the age-old advice, “Write what you know,” and subjected his character to the same brain insult. (Not exactly the same: “Detectives don’t have strokes,” Engel says dryly, “someone bashed him on the head.”) Cooperman undergoes the same therapies as Engel, intermingles with the same medical professionals and fellow patients, and, without ever leaving his ward, solves the mystery of who put him in the hospital and why. Benny has since appeared in another novel, flourishing as perhaps the only brain-damaged detective going. “Benny’s no more recovered than I am,” says Engel. “He can still give you four reasons for the Persian Wars, but he’ll have forgotten who he’s talking to.”

Seven years later, Engel is still reading, however slowly, and still writing. Currently he’s wrestling with a plot twist he’s just dropped into his latest Cooperman-in-progress. He’s added “a street person who’s also a Richard III nut,” meaning one of the band of devotees who keep trying to rehabilitate the English monarch from his Shakespearean aura of evil incarnate. That requires reading, including a fat biography of one of the two princes in the tower Richard supposedly murdered, and the report of a panel of modern legal experts on the king’s guilt or innocence. And how did Richard fare in his modern trial? “Oh, I wouldn’t know, not yet,” laughs Engel. “I’ll find that out six months down the road.” M