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By BILL MARANTZ In the unlikely event you’ve picked up a copy of my cult classic, Christmas Eve Can Kill You, you may have noticed a blurb on the cover written by Eric Wright, author of the Charlie Salter mystery series.

“Bill Marantz deserves a wide audience,” he generously (and inaccurately) predicts. By this time my old classmate had not only won a wide audience but a number of prestigious awards.
No one could have predicted that Eric Wright would become one of Canada’s most celebrated mystery writers. As he recounts in his memoir, Always Give a Penny to a Blind Man, Eric grew up dirt poor in a working class suburb of London, one of ten children. As a boy he loved to ride in his father’s horse-drawn cart but had no desire to follow in his father’s footsteps. Born in 1929 Eric emigrated to Canada in 1951 to seek his fortune. After drifting around for a few months, working at various jobs, he settled in Winnipeg and enrolled in the University of Manitoba’s Arts faculty as a “mature” student.
And that’s where our paths converged.

In 1952 we both had the privilege of sitting at the feet of  James Rainey, future author of The Black Donnelly Trilogy, as he unlocked the beauty of English literature with a dedication seldom displayed in the halls of academe. Our fledgling professor, who was flamboyantly gay, would stand at the front of the class, textbook in hand, and read Romantic poetry with great passion, and a pronounced lisp, that would elicit sniggers and snorts from the jocks lounging at the back of the room. Eric and I were among a handful of freshmen who found our unconventional lecturer an object of admiration, rather than derision. That, and Shirley Marinelli, was our common bond.

Though it was a purely platonic ménage a trois, I suspect that Shirley, an eager cultural beaver who made up in girlish enthusiasm what she lacked in glamour, had a slight crush on both of us. Her teasing allusion to my “little Jewish girlfriend” had a hint of sour grapes. Shirley’s refreshing naivety and bubbling personality was in a sharp contrast to Eric’s reserve. It wasn’t until I read his memoir, years later, that I discovered my fair-haired classmate’s working class origins. To my untrained eye and ear he, seemed a typical low keyed Brit. I did not detect a Cockney accent nor did he have a flamboyant manner. On the contrary, Eric’s ruggedly handsome horse face seldom betrayed emotion. You had to read the signs: a gleam in the pale blue eyes or a thin-lipped (almost painful) smile.

Though Shirley’s parents weren’t poor, she shared Eric’s working class background and reverence for a university education. While I went through the motions, scraping through from year to year by the skin of my teeth, they were both accepted into the “honours English” program, together with Eric’s closest campus friend, Bob Rogers, who, I believe, had won some kind of athletic scholarship. Through Bob, who hailed from Flin Flon, or some other northern backwater, Eric landed a summer job as a fishing guide and this experience became fodder for one of his few non-mystery novels, Moodie’s Tale.

After receiving my BA, in 1956, I drifted into law school while Eric, Bob and Shirley all headed to the University of Toronto in pursuit of post graduate degrees. I believe it was Eric’s intention to obtain a PhD in literature, followed by a post at a university, but he settled for an MA, and a teaching position at the newly created Ryerson Polytechnic. Shirley obtained a degree in library science and a job at some learning institution and Bob became a documentary filmmaker and roommate of fellow filmmaker Gail Singer, who would briefly return to Winnipeg to make her first (and last) feature film, True Confections, based on the autobiographical novel written by Sandra Gottleib...but we’ve been down that road.

Actually, it was Bob who informed me, in 1984, when I was in Toronto on an abortive CBC project that Eric had written a mystery novel. “It’s probably not too good,” I had speculated.
Though I respected Eric’s judgment and independence he didn’t strike me as particularly creative. He was a little too worshipful of hoary literary icons, like William Thackeray, and too dismissive of contemporary mavericks, like Henry Miller. One day, in 3rd year, I had bumped into Eric in the Arts library “stacks,” where I was wrestling with a literature assignment I hadn’t managed to subdue. The Ambassadors was Henry James’s longest novel and I hadn’t made it past page 50. (I kept dozing off.) As luck would have it, Eric had written an essay on the same novel the previous semester.

I couldn’t believe it had received an “A.” I was expecting something original not a regurgitation of received wisdom from learned professors and critics. My plagiarized version only merited a “B,” which seemed a fairer grade.  So when Bob Rogers informed me that our “mutual friend” had embarked on a literary career I wasn’t expecting much. Even when Bob informed me that Eric had been short-listed for some kind of literary award my gut told me his highly touted novel would have the same lack of freshness as his paint-by-numbers essay.

My gut misled me. The Night the Gods Smiled wasn’t The Maltese Falcon but it was a solid piece of crime fiction with a distinctive voice and worldview; the kind of novel only Eric Wright could have written. The author hadn’t fallen back on the familiar hard-boiled clichés and stereotypes, but mined his own experience to create his law enforcement alter ego, Inspector Charlie Salter, and a plot that reflected his disillusionment with the academic profession. Eric had painted a less than flattering, but obviously accurate, picture of the petty politics that ruled the world of academe. Apparently failure to obtain a PhD, and a tenured professorship at a prestigious university, was the best thing that ever happened to my old U of M classmate.

Several prize-winning novels later, Eric was in Winnipeg on a book tour and we met for coffee at the Marlboro hotel, where he was staying, as one of the few non-aboriginal guests. I’d heard that Shirley Marinelli had gotten married and for some reason thought it might have been to Eric. No such luck. He didn’t even know her married name. He’d heard it was an unhappy union and that she and her husband had split up. Eric had tried, in vain, to track her down. She’d fallen off the radar.

A few years later he would write a novel in which Charlie Salter travels to Winnipeg to investigate the background of a young woman who, after moving to Toronto, has disappeared, and is presumed dead. (Another tribute to our long-lost girlfriend is Charlie Salter’s male sidekick, the blunt but lovable Sergeant Marinelli.)

Our brief Marlboro get together was the last time I saw or spoke to Eric. Over the years we have exchanged a few letters (I would usually critique his latest offering.) and when I published my debut mystery, in 2000, he was kind enough to provide a laudatory blurb; even though he had stylistic reservations. Eric is a traditionalist. He prefers “the unvarnished English language” to overly creative prose - and the Underwood typewriter to Microsoft Word. Eric would probably still be writing his manuscripts longhand if it weren’t such a hassle getting someone to transcribe them. To date he’s written almost two dozen books, has won a basket of prizes, has received some kind of lifetime achievement award and, at 85, is still going strong.

Not bad for a Lambeth Limey.  

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