Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Pain is a Pain/Why Howard Engel Rocks

As Emily Latella would tell ya, "It's always something."

My big weekend of finally beating the new issue of TD into submission was instead spent mostly in Agony. Agony, it's right there between Ouch, Montana, and What-the-$%%#%@%!!!, Texas.

After my first close-up glance at the American medical system yesterday, which doesn't seem all that different from the Canadian one except for a load more paperwork (mostly regarding who will pay or who won't sue who) the ER docs reached their diagnosis:

I've got an "acute sprained rotator cuff."

Don't ask me how I got it -- I dunno. And it doesn't seem very cute to me.

But I've been barely able to function for the last few days. Even typing this is wince-inducing. Shoulder hurt real bad. My left shoulder. And I'm left-handed, my right hand already next to useless when it comes to anything requiring precise manual dexterity. So I've been reading and watching TV a lot .

All these eyes that routinely get beat up and bounce right back? What bullshit.

Pain hurts. And it doesn't go away. Or at least never as quickly as you'd like. It lingers. Makes itself at home. Kicks its muddy shoes off and plops its stinky feet on your coffee table, grabs the remote and asks if there's any beer in the fridge.

Which brings me, sort of, to today's topic:

P.I.s who actually get hurt, and stay hurt. Dick Francis' Sid Halley books are probably the best I've read, as far as showing real pain and its effects. Possibly because Francis was a jock and pain plays a big part in a lot of sports. So he knows...

But a current read which doesn't shy away from the effects of violence and trauma is MEMORY BOOK by Howard Engel, whom many consider the best P.I. writer Canada has produced.

That ignores Ross Macdonald (who wrote about and lived in Southern California for most of his writing life), but there's no denying that Engel's Benny Cooperman is one of the most beloved characters in Canadian literature, a soft-boiled smalltown gumshoe (and nice Jewish boy -- ask his mom) who may be more Poirot than Marlowe, but whose cases are definitely noir-tinged; the sort of dark cosy that operates somewhere between salon and saloon, where tough-talking thugs,corrupt cops and low-lifes of all stripes from the hard-boiled world and the concluding rounding up of the usual suspects so the detective can explain all from CozyWorldcan all exist in the same story.

Certainly the Cooperman books have been a big influence on me -- and just about every other Canadian mystery writer of the last thirty or so years. Or any other "regional" writer, for that matter, who's been told that where they live just isn't worth reading about.

So, when Benny first appeared way back in the late seventies (I think he first appeared in a CBC radio play), there was no English Canadian crime fiction, per se, and certainly not enough to constitute any sort of "scene."

Oh there were a few books here and there, and always had been, but far too often they seemed like they were watered-down for a foreign (ie: American or British) audience, anything too distinctively and obviously Canadian sanded down, or set elsewhere than Canada or jammed full of the most cartoonish of stereotypes: Red-coated Mounties on horses! Hockey players! Lumberjacks! Crazy French-Canadians!!!

But Engel, along with Eric Wright, who appeared at almost exactly the same time, didn't shy away from being Canadian. They wrote, without shame or apology, Canadian stories -- their heroes were Canadian and their settings were Canadian. And if some Brit or Yankee didn't like it, tough.

In those days, before BLOODY WORDS and the CANADIAN CRIMEWRITERS ASSOCIATION, that took real balls.

And so, mild-mannered Benny, with his penchant for chopped egg sandwiches and wisecracks, saddled with a nagging mother and not shy about displaying his love for small town life and his profession became a sort of hero and an inspiration to me. After all, if Grantham, Ontario could have a P.I., why couldn't Montreal? Or Notre-dame-des-grace? (Of course, I later discovered other, earlier P.I.s from "la belle ville" and all across the country, but Engel and Benny, like a first girlfriend, remain -- and will always remain -- dear to my heart.

At first glance, MEMORY BOOK seems to have a classic plot right out of a 1940s RKO flick: private eye Benny comes to in a Toronto hospial, with no real clue as to who he is, after being found unconscious in an alley (in a dumpster, a decidedly modern touch) from a serious whack on ther noggin. He doesn't even remember what case (if there was a case) even brought him to the city.

Unlike about a zillion books, flicks and TV shows, it will take more than a shot of rye and a Camel (or in Benny's case, a chopped egg sandwich) to put things right. Not only has he been in a coma for weeks, when he comes to, he has short-term memory loss and can't remember anybody's name. But even worse is that he's suffering from a bizarre condition called alexia sine agraphia, which means he can still write (which theoretically would be a great boon in restoring his memory, a la MEMENTO) but he can't read!

Yeah, I know, I know... it sounds like hokum except that the condition actually exists and even more poignantly, Howard Engel himself has it, after having a devastating stroke a few years ago, making this book's very existence as much a story as the book itself. It took Engel three painstaking years to write it -- the whole laborious process is outlined in a pithy afterword by Dr. Oliver "Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat" Sachs, and Engel's determination to continue writing is as hard-boiled and worthy of respect as anything I've ever heard a writer do.

Horn-tooting tough guys like Spillane? Hammett? Hemingway?

Wankers all, compared to Engel.

Who'd think a soft-spoken Canadian would turn out to be the toughest guy on the writing block I know?

At 74 or so, he's re-learning to read, and is now at the grade three level, a story which easily trumps any self-promoting tricked up tale of two-fisted manliness I've ever heard. Oh, and he's supposedly working on the next Benny Cooperman book, number 12.

He shrugs it off. "I'm hardwired to writing; it's too late for me to learn new tricks."

So, do me a favor here, guys?

I can barely raise my arm right now (getting dressed will be SO MUCH FUN), so could you all, next time you're in a toasting mood, raise a glass on my behalf for Howard Engel?



Blogger Graham Powell said...

As for pain, I have a pinched nerve in my lower back, so it feels like someone's drilling a hole through my left buttock.

As for regional fiction, Lehane and Pelecanos write about their hometowns, and that seems to be working out pretty well.

I have never read any of Engel's books but I may have to start with this one.

2:43 PM, August 08, 2006  
Blogger Linda said...

OW!! I know what that feels like. I sprained something in my shoulder back in March. They never said exactly what was sprained. It's almost back to normal. Anyway, I hope you have a speedy recovery. :)


2:59 PM, August 08, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

For the last seven days, I've been laid up with gout. Now I'm urinating blood for no apparent reason.

Oh yeah, I know pain.

3:49 AM, August 09, 2006  
Blogger Kevin Burton Smith said...

Yikes, this is turning into that great scene from JAWS where they're comparing war wounds...

3:23 PM, August 09, 2006  
Blogger Stephen D. Rogers said...

This is the scar from when KBS and GS killed one of my darlings. :)

8:32 AM, August 15, 2006  

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