With his detective Charlie Salter, novelist Eric Wright created one of the country's most popular literary heroes. Much like Salter doggedly working a case, Mr. Wright was known for meticulously crafting the plots of his crime novels, which were always readable and quintessentially Canadian.
The author once told the CBC that he was drawn to crime fiction because he enjoyed the formula. It also helped that the field wasn't crowded in the early eighties, when he wrote his first Salter mystery. So Mr. Wright, who was then a poetry professor in his 50s, felt he had a good chance of being published, something for which he had long yearned.
Mr. Wright, who died of kidney cancer on Oct. 9 in Toronto at the age of 86, went on to publish more than 20 books, including whodunnits, literary fiction and an acclaimed memoir. The late-blooming writer became a firmly established and celebrated figure in the Canadian publishing world.
Eric Stanley Wright was born in London, England, on May 4, 1929, to Caroline and Joseph Wright. His father was a carter and his mother a seamstress, and Eric was the ninth of 10 children.
The family was desperately poor and lived in a rented house in the slums of London. In his 1999 memoir Always Give a Penny to a Blind Man, he wrote that his father frequently failed to recognize him.
"He knew I belonged to him but he was not always sure which one I was." Mr. Wright's account of his early years is unsentimental and even humorous at times, in spite of the war exploding around him.
"The war for a schoolboy was the background; the foreground was school." Fortunately he did well in his studies, because education was a way out of poverty. It also put distance between himself and his parents, however.
"I was a stranger to them by the time I was thirteen and at twenty was no more than a boarder in my own house," he wrote.
After a two-year stint in national service, Mr. Wright decided it was time to leave Britain. He had managed to save enough money for the fare and in 1951, he landed in Canada and headed west to Winnipeg.
In an early interview, he talked about his decision to emigrate. "I wound up in Winnipeg and I knew I was right the day after I got here. For me Canada was a romantic country. I got a job in Winnipeg as a labourer with a dry goods warehouse for sixty cents an hour, and it still seemed I was in a land of milk and honey."
Mr. Wright saved up enough money to enroll in the University of Manitoba's English program, where one of his professors, James Reaney, inspired him to write. In a CBC interview, Mr. Wright said it was Professor Reaney's faint praise for a certain paragraph in an essay he had written that challenged him to do better. When he wasn't studying, he worked as a fishing guide for wealthy Americans. It didn't matter that he had no idea what kind of fish they caught. He relished the outdoors.
After he received his honours BA in 1957, Mr. Wright enrolled in the master's program at the University of Toronto, where Northrop Frye was teaching William Blake. That same year, he met an Englishwoman named Valerie Brown, who had come to Canada to visit her brother and decided to remain.
She was working in the book shop of Toronto's Park Plaza Hotel and says that Mr. Wright "picked her up." They were able to marry on July 5, 1958, because he sold an article to the New Yorker magazine. The autobiographical essay, titled Blitzkrieg Days, would eventually become part of his memoir.
In spite of this success, Mr. Wright didn't consider himself a good enough writer. "I simply didn't have the nerve and confidence to think I could make a living just by writing."
So in 1958 he decided to teach English at Ryerson Polytechnical Institute (now called Ryerson University), where he rose to become chairman of the department and dean of arts.
Former Toronto mayor David Crombie also taught at Ryerson and the two men formed a lasting friendship. Mr. Crombie describes Mr. Wright as politically, "a man of the gentle left."
He goes on to say that Mr. Wright possessed a quietness about him that people trusted, as well as a keen sense of humour that manifested itself "not as a belly laugh but more like a deep, amusing chuckle."
In 1959, the Wrights' daughter Victoria was born and in 1963, the year he completed his master's, their second daughter, Jessica, arrived. Mr. Wright, who wrote whenever he could find time, once said, "I never took myself seriously as someone with a message. I took myself seriously as someone who really loved writing of almost any kind."
Close friend and colleague Howard Engel describes Mr. Wright's process. "He was always experimenting. Always pushing himself and polished his work. His writing process was meticulous." His wife, Valerie Wright, says that writing was a "compulsion" for him. "He could write anywhere, even while we were travelling."
The compulsiveness paid off. In 1983, his mystery novel The Night the Gods Smiled was published. It was the first book to feature police detective Charlie Salter. It won the Arthur Ellis Award, the John Creasey Memorial Award for best crime drama and the City of Toronto Book Award. Although he continued to work at Ryerson until his retirement, in 1989, he could afford to work part-time because by this time his wife was running a successful business on Cumberland Street.
Globe and Mail crime fiction reviewer Derrick Murdoch liked the book. "As a straight mystery story, The Night the Gods Smiled comes quite a bit better than average: fair clues, adequate motive, a well assorted set of characters and interestingly varied settings. The style is light, urbane and very readable."
He used Toronto as a backdrop to the Salter novels, something that had never really been done. Readers and book reviewers loved the books' strong sense of place. But, as Valerie says, by the end of the series, Mr. Wright had "used up Charlie" who was "nailed to the streets of Toronto."
When he placed Salter in Prince Edward Island for the 1987 mystery A Body Surrounded by Water, book reviewer Ken Adachi was miffed. "Certainly, when mystery stories succeed in evoking an environment or ethos, the reader can more readily forgive any lack of suspense or ingenuity in the plot. But the backwaters of Prince Edward Island?"
Mr. Wright was a prolific writer. By the time he retired the Salter character after 11 books, he'd already turned to other mystery series with equal success. The Lucy Trimble Brenner mysteries, the Mel Pickett mysteries and the Joe Barley mysteries allowed Mr. Wright to explore different settings and themes with a fresh set of heroes and villains.
While the crime fiction genre made him successful, he was also interested in other genres and was especially pleased with his memoir, Always Give a Penny to a Blind Man, which was a finalist for the inaugural Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction. He drew on experiences from his own life in his other work as well, as in his novel Moodie's Tale, a satirical take on life in academia. Similarly, in Finding Home, he explores the problem that is "the permanent lot of the immigrant, that no matter how long you live there and however successfully you make a life, it's someone else's home, not yours."
Despite these complicated feelings about his status as an immigrant, Mr. Wright embraced life in Canada. He built his own cottage on Pickerel River and for a time the Wrights owned a farm on PEI. True to his British roots, however, he loved to gamble on the horses and he and Valerie even had a share in a winner. The name of the horse? Unduplicated.
Eric Wright leaves his wife; daughters, Victoria and Jessica; and granddaughter, Poppy.
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