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obituary

Howard Engel, crime fiction writer, ex-CBC producer and novelist.Patti Gower/The Globe and Mail

One summer morning in 2000, Howard Engel, a successful and admired author of detective novels, awoke and began his usual routine. He made his coffee and picked up his copy of The Globe and Mail from the stoop of his home in Toronto’s Annex neighbourhood.

However, when he looked at the paper, it was a puzzle; he could not make out the words. “It might have been Cyrillic or Korean,” he later told an interviewer. Initially, he thought it might be a prank, but his son Jacob, with whom Mr. Engel lived, realized something was very wrong. They went to Mount Sinai Hospital, where it was determined that Mr. Engel had suffered a stroke. It left him with a very rare condition known as alexia sine agraphia, which meant that he was unable to read, although his ability to write was unaffected.

It is a disastrous diagnosis for a writer. Mr. Engel’s long-time literary agent, Beverley Slopen, said: “I didn’t know how he was going to continue. He could not read or edit what he had written.”

But Mr. Engel would not give in. Cynthia Good, who worked with him on nine books for Penguin Canada, said, in citing him for the Canadian Jewish Book Awards Lifetime Achievement Award, he showed “dogged determination, a sense of humour, a fascination with what was happening to him and a remarkable curiosity about his medical case. … And he never stopped writing for a moment.”

In fact, Mr. Engel, who died July 16 from complications after a stroke, was to use his disability creatively, not surprising to those who knew him. He showed a creative flair from an early age while enduring a litany of sorrows and losses that might well have driven a man of weaker fibre to despair, beginning when he was born with a withered left hand and continuing through divorce, the tragic death of his second wife and his devastating stroke.

Howard Engel was born April 2, 1931, the first son of Jack and Florence (Lollie) Engel, in St. Catharines, Ont., where his father owned a women’s-clothing store.

From early on, Howard showed a strong interest in life’s creative side. Despite his withered hand, he was a promising artist, sketching and painting. Howard shared a bedroom with his brother, David, who was two years younger. The brothers conceived of and built a portable puppet stage, David recalled, and in high school, just after the Second World War, they staged performances to aid charities such as the Greek Relief Fund. (The proprietor of the St. Catharines Diana Sweets restaurant, a favourite of the Engels and of Howard’s Benny Cooperman, was Greek.) The shows were a variety act and the puppets – designed and built by Howard with costumes by Lollie Engel – included Al Jolson, Jack and the Beanstalk, a classical pianist who played Chopin and a ballerina.

Paul Wayne, a Los Angeles-based screenwriter and a lifelong friend who regarded Mr. Engel as a brother, first met him at summer camp, Camp Freylach (Yiddish for happy). Among their counsellors was Lou Jacobi, later a renowned Broadway actor. In his eulogy, Mr. Wayne said, “Howard had written a Conan Doyle satire called Hershlock Loams. I was a flailing pianist-composer. Having caught a glimpse of the future, he put us together to write a brief sketch on the life of Chopin.” Later, the two, both Gilbert and Sullivan lovers, attempted a parody of the Victorian operetta titans, setting it on Mars.

Another early brush with celebrity came, his daughter Charlotte Engel said, when Marilyn Monroe went to Niagara Falls to shoot the 1953 film noir Niagara. Mr. Engel signed on as an extra.

Ms. Monroe, passing by, asked him where the water fountain was. According to Mr. Engel, he was too tongue-tied to respond; he simply stammered and pointed in an apparently random direction.

His creativity, Ms. Engel said, extended to the kitchen, where he’d prepare paella (he had a fondness for Spanish food), vichyssoise and duck. On one occasion, she adds, he made madeleines, a fussy French pastry, explaining that “I just felt like having some.”

Mr. Engel graduated from McMaster University, where he admitted to being an indifferent scholar, before heading to London and then Paris, where he did pieces for the CBC. In 1962, he married Marian Passmore, who soon gained fame as literary novelist Marian Engel (her works include 1976′s controversial Bear). Before their 1978 divorce, they had two children, twins Charlotte and William, born in 1965.

Mr. Engel then married Janet Hamilton, herself a skilled writer, who died of brain cancer in 1998, at 47. The couple had one son, Jacob, born in 1989.

Over the years, Mr. Engel told several interviewers that his first wife’s success had spurred him to write. He said on a CBC-TV documentary (Chasing Cooperman): “I felt like a eunuch in the harem.”

And so, in 1980, The Suicide Murders appeared, and Benny Cooperman was born.

In the first of what were to be 14 Benny Cooperman novels, readers encountered a gentle, funny, violence-abhorring, easy-going, Jewish private investigator from the fictional town of Grantham, Ont., a version of St. Catharines. Tony Aspler, a wine expert and fellow mystery writer, has called Benny “a cross between Leopold Bloom and Columbo.”

“The great Canadian detective did not exist until Howard Engel invented Benny Cooperman,” Andrew Ryan wrote in The Globe in 2008.

Peter Robinson, author of the acclaimed Alan Banks detective novels, said: “Howard was one of Canada’s very first crime writers, along with Eric Wright and Ted Wood. We met when I joined Crime Writers of Canada, which they helped found [in 1982]. He almost invented the soft-boiled detective, much like the egg-salad sandwiches Benny Cooperman loves. Cooperman’s personality seems much like Howard’s.”

Margaret Cannon, long-time crime-books columnist for The Globe, said, “Not only was Howard among the first handful of Canadian crime writers, he was among the first to set his novels in Canada, and in a small city at that. He paved the way for hundreds of Canadian crime writers.”

Praise came not just from Canada, but also from international masters of the genre. Ruth Rendell wrote: “Engel can turn a phrase as neatly as Chandler ... an original, distinctive, and distinctively Canadian talent.” For Donald Westlake, “Benny Cooperman is a character who somewhere in the collective literary unconscious of this country was crying to be invented.”

After the first book, Ms. Good said, “Benny Cooperman became almost a household word, a loveable character in the Canadian canon. He’s funny, sharp, endlessly curious, kind and full of arcane knowledge – just like his creator.” (Benny was portrayed by Saul Rubinek in two made-for-TV movies.)

Mr. Engel, who also wrote a half-dozen non-Cooperman books, was much honoured. He won an Arthur Ellis Award for Crime Fiction and the Matt Cohen Writers’ Trust Award. He was invested as a member of the Order of Canada in 2007, the first crime writer so honoured. He also received the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal and became the first recipient of Crime Writers of Canada’s Grand Master Award, in 2014.

In addition to these accolades for his work, Mr Engel received universal applause for his character as well. Those who knew him described him as a witty, sweet-natured, warm, erudite, generous and unpretentious man with a talent for friendship.

The alexia might have seemed to end Benny Cooperman’s career and that of his creator, but as both Jacob and Charlotte Engel attest, their father never quit. Painstakingly, letter by letter, he learned to read again, although haltingly and incompletely. “It was a struggle for him even to read a Dr. Seuss book,” Ms. Slopen said. “It was difficult to believe he’d ever write again.”

But write he did. The Memory Book (2005) found Benny Cooperman suffering the same affliction and effects as Mr. Engel had. Then, in 2007, he published The Man Who Forgot How to Read, a memoir. Jim Gifford, the editorial director for non-fiction at HarperCollins who commissioned the work, wrote in a Facebook post: “Working on the memoir was very tough for Howard, as while he could still write, as soon as he committed a word to the page he could no longer read it or remember what he had just written. I sat at Howard’s kitchen table for many hours, reviewing my margin notes and reading him my lengthy editorial letters. … I asked him how someone who had often read a book a day over his life could tolerate his circumstances. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘first off, there’s nothing I can do about it. And two, I find it quite freeing.’ I asked him what he meant by that and he said that we don’t understand that our world is polluted with words, from advertising to the write-ups on cereal boxes, and it had all become a blur to him.”

The late writer and neurologist Oliver Sacks, whose writings often brilliantly documented the consequences of various physical deficits and losses, took an interest in the case after Mr. Engel wrote to him. In addition to contributing an afterword to Mr. Engel’s memoir, with his usual compassionate curiosity, he devoted a chapter in his 2010 book, The Mind’s Eye, to his now-friend and a wide-ranging discussion of alexia and related visual problems. He concludes that, despite Mr. Engel’s alexia, “he has found a way to remain a man of letters. That he was able to do so is a testament to many things: the dedication and skill of his therapists in rehab [where he spent several months], his own determination to read again, and the adaptability of the human brain.”

Mr. Engel was living proof of that adaptability. Nearly to his final day, he was still at work, doing what he loved.

Mr. Engel leaves his daughter, Charlotte; sons, William and Jacob; and brother, David.

A memorial service will be held at a date to be announced.

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