On a late July morning in 2001, Howard Engel picked up his morning edition of the Globe and Mail and found it written in a foreign language. At least, it appeared to be a foreign language: the layout and design looked familiar, but he couldn’t read anything.
“Panic should have hit me like the proverbial ton of bricks,” Engel later wrote of the moment in his memoir. “But instead I was suffused with a reasonable, business-as-usual calm. ‘Since this isn’t somebody’s idea of a joke, then, it follows, I have suffered a stroke.’ ”
The stroke caused alexia sine agraphia, colloquially known as word blindness. Miraculously, he could still write and speak, but when he looked at words, he couldn’t understand their meaning.
That Engel went on to write two books about the event – a memoir and a fictionalized detective story – is a testament to his strength of will in his determination to re-learn how to read. Those books, published in the mid-2000s, were among the last the prolific author would write.
Engel died in Toronto on July 16, of pneumonia, at the age of 88.
Engel was born on April 2, 1931, in St. Catharines, Ont. The small city didn’t offer much excitement for a creative teenager, but in the early 1950s, Marilyn Monroe came to town to shoot the film noir thriller Niagara at nearby Niagara Falls. Engel eagerly signed up to be an extra. One day, Monroe asked him where the water fountain was. He stammered and pointed vaguely in some random direction.
He later moved to Toronto and worked as a radio producer for the CBC, where he interviewed the Beatles and Glenn Gould. Engel married his first wife, Marian, a writer, in 1962, and the couple had two children, Charlotte and William. Marian went on to write a dozen books, which mounted pressure on Engel, who had literary dreams of his own. He and Marian divorced in the late 1970s, around the same time he got laid off by the CBC. Some might have been discouraged by the events, but Engel saw it as an opportunity.
Two years later, he published his first novel, The Suicide Murders, starring a quiet Canadian Jewish detective named Benny Cooperman working out of a fictional town in Ontario’s Niagara Region.
“I thought I’d try to do what hadn’t been done, what didn’t already exist in the mystery line,” he recalled in a CBC interview in 1995. “A Canadian detective, for one; a Jewish detective; somebody working out of a small town, rather than a big city. Somebody who did the kind of things that Philip Marlow and Sam Spade wouldn’t touch. Somebody who’s softboiled rather than hard-boiled.”
Cooperman was a hit, packing 14 novels over three decades, some of which were adapted into TV movies starring Saul Rubinek. With his wild tufts of white hair framing his large glasses, Engel looked every bit the bookish author of outlandish mystery novels. But he wasn’t a reclusive author. He was popular and social, even co-founding the Crime Writers of Canada.
Engel married his second wife, Janet Hamilton, and together they had one son, Jacob. In 1998, Janet passed away from brain cancer at just 47, leaving Engel to continue raising Jacob on his own. When the stroke faltered his writing career in 2001, pressure mounted all the more. But Engel persevered, recovering and publishing a renowned memoir of the event, which received international attention from NPR and The New Yorker.
Engel was invested into the Order of Canada in 2007 and received awards from the Writers’ Trust of Canada and the Crime Writers of Canada, as well as a Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal in 2013, all of which remain testaments to his life’s work and contributions to Canadian life.
“Howard Engel has played an instrumental role in the revival of the crime fiction genre in Canadian literature,” declares his investiture into the Order of Canada. “He has given readers across the nation and around the world a sense of our stories, our values and our various regional characteristics.”