Friday, March 18, 2011

Mystery as Cure (Books - Memory Book by Howard Engel)

Memory Book by Howard Engel, in which detective Benny Cooperman awakens in a rehabilitation hospital unable to read but not to write (alexia sine agraphia) and unable to remember anything about the hit on the head that put him there, finished relatively grippingly. I had felt that the initial stages of the mystery were held back by the fact that the writing of the book was an exercise that author Howard Engel used to help in his adjustment to life with alexia sine agraphia (see my first post on this book). But having given over to this conceit, I ended up enjoying detective Cooperman and his cast of characters. Engel managed in the book's second half to ramp up both the pace and the suspense, and even to conclude with a somewhat tongue-in-cheek drawing room scene in which the detective assembles his suspects and reveals the answer to the mystery.

There were a few moments during which the hybrid nature of the novel ended up getting too cute, as for example, which Benny learns of the nature of his illness from his brother Sam, a physician, and replies
Sounds like a case for that American doctor, the one who wrote The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.
As Engel was a patient of Oliver Sacks, the author of that book, and indeed wrote the afterword for this one, I found the joke a little sophomoric. I was most taken with the writing, some of it quite eloquent, about this experience of being a patient with alexia and amnesia.
There are all kinds of sleep - refreshing all-nighters, fender-bending nightmares, catnaps, and deep oblivion - but for a sleep that gathers you up, seduces you, and turns off your lights there is nothing quite like hospital sleep. Sleep, the seductress of my waking hours, watched me closely, knew my weaknesses, held out lurid promises...


Then there were voices, far away, against an echoing background. I can't reproduce the words, not the exact words, one never can in a dream, but there were two voices talking about drugs and their cost. One voice, an English-accented voice, was telling the other not to be daft, that she shouldn't play at knowing what she was doing without measuring the cost. "Ecstasy," she said. "Have you lost your tiny mind?" The other voice was younger, guarding her ignorance with bluster.

"What's the harm?" Where had I heard such talk? Were they nurses talking near my bed? Right now, as I slept? Or were they seeds from my memory, dropped like acorns from my resting brain? Was it a fragment of another time and place?
Engel also allowed the pseudo-hardboiled detective banter of Cooperman to do double-duty as sarcasm about his illness.
"This is the real Sheila Kerzon. The imposter was Heather Nesbitt, her roommate. And, in a minute, without a net, I'm going to see if I can guess my own name."
I can only imagine that must have been liberating, and this reader some indication of the frustrating struggle that must have been behind the recovery from this illness that is belied by the creation of a detective novel while not being able to read!

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