Monday, October 16, 2006

The Writer Who Couldn't Read

What do you do if you’re a successful, highly-lauded mystery writer in his late 60s who suffers a stroke that causes a rare condition called alexia sine agraphia, which affects the memory and the ability to read but not the ability to write? If you’re Howard Engel, you turn the experience into one of your wry and solid books about Toronto private detective Benny Cooperman.

Benny’s latest investigation begins as he wakes from a recurring dream about a train wreck to find himself in a Toronto hospital. Cooperman has been in a coma for eight weeks after being found in a trash bin near the University of Toronto with a near-fatal blow to the head — next to the body of a young female professor, dead of a similar injury. Using a small notebook in which he meticulously jots down thoughts and details as they occur to him, Benny and his friend Anna Abraham reconstruct his most recent case. An anonymously-sent basket of flowers triggers the name Rose or Rosie, and other clues suddenly pop into his head apparently at random to finally reveal an academic conspiracy.

Dr. Oliver Sacks, the famous neurologist and no mean writer himself, contributes an afterword that says it all: “Is the present volume up to the standard of the previous Benny Cooperman novels? My answer, as a reader of detective stories, is ‘Yes, absolutely.’ Indeed, I think this may be the most remarkable of them all, because of its special personal dimension… Memory Book has a unique depth and authenticity, because Howard Engel has known and traversed all that he writes about…’”