Friday, June 06, 2014

Howard Engel's Memory Book, or What happens when a writer loses his ability to read?

(The graphically brilliant
and thematically relevant cover

of the Canadian edition of
Memory Book)
The Crime Writers of Canada announced the winners of the Arthur Ellis Awards this week, an honor my landsman Howard Shrier has won twice in the past. This year's awards inaugurated a Grand Master category, and the first winner is the author of what must be one of the most unusual crime novels ever published. In honor of the award here's a post I put up some years ago about Memory Book, by grandmaster Howard Engel.

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

This was the first crime novel I can remember that comes with an afterword by a neurologist. That neurologist, Oliver Sacks, writes of his acquaintance with Howard Engel, which came about because of Engel's alexia sine agraphia, a condition in which the sufferer loses the ability to read but not to write -- a difficult affliction to bear for a novelist.

Sacks tells us about some of the surprising ways Engel overcame this condition and resumed his writing career. The first product of this resumption was Memory Book, the eleventh novel featuring private eye Benny Cooperman, and the first in which Benny must, like his creator, overcome alexia sine agraphia. (Engel's condition was the result of a mild stroke. Cooperman's was the result of -- but you'll have to read the book to find out.)
Confined to a rehabilitation hospital as he is, Cooperman must, like Alan Grant in Josephine Tey's Daughter of Time, solve a mystery from his sick bed. Cooperman is alive to the world of the hospital, to the personalities of his fellow patients, his nurses and his doctors.

The mystery Cooperman must solve is how he wound up in the condition in which he finds himself. This leads him back into the case that had brought him from his home town of Grantham, Ontario, to Toronto, where he was hospitalized. He must solve these dual mysteries as he struggles with neurological conditions that leave him constantly tired and unable to retain names and words. His discoveries of his own slowly returning cognitive abilities as he chases down the people who put him where he is add an intriguing dimension highly unusual in crime novels to say the least. Handicapped detectives have been around for almost a hundred years, if not longer, but I don't know of any others who have shared an affliction with their creator.

I also found myself wondering if Engel's cognitive struggles accounted for my one quibble with the novel's style. In at least two places, long stretches of dialogue are uninterrupted by reaction on Cooperman's part. In at least one of these, the lack of reaction was obtrusive. Is this a quirk of Engel's style unrelated to his condition? I'll tell you after I've read more of his books.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

Technorati tags:

Labels: , , , , ,


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Normally I would love a book like this. However as I approach midlife and can't remember anything, it sounds scary.

July 04, 2008  
Blogger Simona Carini said...

Very interesting. And hard to imagine how it feels to have such condition.

July 04, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'd have to kill myself if I couldn't read. That's just awful. I shall read this in due time to see how he made it through.

July 05, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I suppose no two people would react quite the same way to memory loss or perceptual difficulties, but Engel's book might prove encouraging to such people. For one this, there is the very fact of his having written a mystery while struggling to overcome his condition. For another, the book chronicles its protagonist's own struggle, and he comes up with some quite interesting ways to get his job done. Oliver Sacks' afterword offers similar encouragement.

July 05, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

CS, if, God forbid, you should lose the ability to read or to retain what you read, get hold of this book before you kill yourself.

Simona, for about he first third of the book, the principal interest lies in Benny Cooperman's learning about the condition and how it affects him. Engel does a pretty good job of giving the reader an idea of how it must feel to have the condition.

July 05, 2008  

Post a Comment

<< Home