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Remembering Eric Wright: Peter Robinson recalls his friendship with the late Canadian mystery novelist

When I joined Crime Writers of Canada about 30 years ago, Eric Wright, who died this past Oct. 9, was one of the first people to welcome me, along with Tony Aspler, Howard Engel, and Ted Wood. There weren’t many of us back then, but now the membership is thriving, and Canadian crime writing is very much alive and well. A lot of this is thanks to Eric.

Author Eric Wright (photo: Valerie Wright)

Author Eric Wright (photo: Valerie Wright)

I had been reading the Charlie Salter books since The Night the Gods Smiled came out in 1983, and I was especially thrilled to meet their author. I had just begun a series of my own that also involved a police detective and sidekick, though I set the DCI Banks books in the Yorkshire region of England, not Canada, because that was the part of the world I knew best. Despite the geographical differences, though, I’m sure I got an idea or two from Eric, including naming villains after one’s old school teachers!

Eric and I also shared an interest in the International Association of Crime Writers, and it was through this organization that our friendship developed further.

In May 1991, we were fortunate enough to be invited to an IACW conference in Moscow. It was shortly before the coup against Gorbachev – the time of perestroika and glasnost – and things were in a bad way. The shelves were empty, though the queues outside the shops seemed to stretch for miles, and the wide avenues were littered with broken-down Ladas. But at our hotel, we had bottles of vodka and champagne on the table with every meal, including breakfast. No matter how little food there was (or how bad), there was never any shortage of vodka. The new Russia was coming, and in the evenings the girls who hung around the hotel bar liked to practise their English on us between assignations.

Eric and I would spend ages simply walking the streets, sometimes with Stuart Kamisky, who had set books in Moscow but had never been there before. One time a young boy tagged along begging for money. Despite all warnings from our hosts, Eric gave him a few roubles, and after that we just couldn’t shake him off. No matter how far we walked, for the rest of the evening he was beside Eric with his hand out.

When we went to the famous street market on Arbat, I wanted to buy a matryoshka doll from one of the stallholders. He asked for an outrageous amount in roubles, and I countered with $10. Everyone knew it was illegal to accept foreign currency, but everyone did it anyway. The vendor looked around surreptitiously and slid a doll over to me, indicating that I should put the money inside it. So I shoved ten bucks into Stalin, screwed his head back on and pushed him back while the vendor slid my doll over to me. Eric thought all this was hilarious, and we walked around for the next while feeling like a couple of secret agents, though perhaps more in the vein of Johnny English than James Bond. Sadly, when we returned later for Eric to buy a samovar, the police had done a sweep of the market and nobody would touch dollars.

I think Eric enjoyed the world of intrigue and espionage. We got into the habit of having lunch at various Toronto venues two or three times a year, sometimes with Howard Engel and Alison Gordon, but as often as not just the two of us. There was always a whiff of the John le Carré about our lunches. Eric had a way of sharing confidences, imparting gossip, telling stories, and whispering asides that made them feel secret, revelatory, dangerous even, as if there were a subtext I couldn’t quite grasp, though there was nothing in the actual content of our conversations to merit this. I can only put it down to his working in the academic world for so long. But whatever the subtext, Eric was always a witty and interesting conversationalist, and the lunches were a great pleasure.

Naturally, we talked about books a lot. Eric told me very early on in our friendship that when he retired he was going to spend his time rereading all his favourite novels. The last time we had lunch, earlier this year, he said he was unburdening himself of all the books he had read and would never read again – even his beloved Graham Greene. I didn’t interpret this in any sinister way. I knew he’d had a bad fall down the steps into the Cheers bar in Boston not long before, and was walking with a stick, but other than that he seemed in fine fettle. We stood outside The Rebel House on Yonge near Rosedale and agreed to meet again later in the year, then I watched him cross Yonge Street slowly with his stick and disappear down a side street. That was the last I saw of Eric Wright, and it saddens me that we will never have any more such lunches.