Created by Howard Engel
“She was the sort of woman that made you wish you’d taken another three minutes shaving”
Canada may be under-represented in the private eye field, but we do have Howard Engel's BENNY COOPERMAN, one of the most idiosyncratic and distinctive -- and unapologetically Canadian --gumshoes in the racket.
Walking down the not-so-very-mean streets of sleepy Grantham, Ontario (actually St. Catharines), Benny's a mild-mannered kinda guy, pretty soft-boiled, just a nice Jewish boy, really, content with a good book to read, and maybe a chopped egg sandwich now and then at Diana Sweets.
But looks can be, oh, so deceiving...
Beneath the exterior, Grantham isn't quite so nice, and Benny's a shrewd, crafty and tenacious investigator. He doesn't carry a gun, or even fight very well, but he displays endless reserves of patience, something anyone Jewish in a small, Protestant town in southern Ontario probably has a little experience with.
Despite the unassuming surface nature of the series, these books are a real treat. He may just be "a sweet guy who's found a job he likes...a kind of tidier. He likes things tidy, and he worries away at them," as Eric Wright, another Canadian mystery writer, puts it in Maxim Jakubowski's 100 Great Detectives, but under it all is a passion for justice, a shrewd mind and a dogged determination that belies the soft exterior. The Cooperman books are not comedies, but they are very witty, sorta like a cross between P.G. Wodehouse and Raymond Chandler, with Canada acting as the midwife.
The creator of the Benny Cooperman series and one of the founders of The Crime Writers of Canada (serving as its chairperson 1986-87), Howard Engel has been dubbed "the Grand Old Man of Canadian crime fiction" by The Globe and Mail's Margaret Cannon."
After graduation from McMasters University in Hamilton, Ontario in 1955, where he received a B.A. in Humanities, he taught briefly in Sault St. Marie but soon began freelance writing and reporting for the CBC (Toronto). In 1960, he was assigned to Europe where he reported from Paris, London, Spain and Cyprus. He became executive producer of Sunday Supplement, The Arts in Review and Anthology for the CBC beginning in 1967. His work included "specials" on Hemingway, Faulkner, MacLeish, Samuel Beckett and Raymond Chandler. In the early eighties Engel, along with Eric Wright, helped spark the rebirth of Canadian crime fiction. He's since become a frequent nominee for and recipient of the CWC's Arthur Ellis awards, including their prestigious Derrick Murdoch Award for lifetime achievement. He's also the author of non-fiction works such as Lord High Executioner, a history of capital punishment laced with more than a little black humour, and Crimes of Passion: An Unblinking Look at Murderous Love (2001). And he's also given us some stand-alone novels, such as Murder In Montparnasse, set in the literary scene of and Mr. Doyle and Dr. Bell, starring the young Arthur Conan Doyle and his real life model for Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Joseph Bell.
You want tough?
In July of 2001, Engel suffered a stroke that left him with alexia sine agraphia; a rare condition which affects the memory and the ability to read (although -- amazingly -- not the ability to write). Undaunted, Engel proceeded to face the blow head on. His next novel, Memory Book (2005), cast Benny in the same predictament. When the detective wakes up in a Toronto hospital without a clue how he got there, he must slowly rebuild his life -- and find out who tried to kill him. The book could have turned into a sap fest, but Engel kept the story popping and pulled off something truly special -- a book that had you pulling not just for the private eye, but his creator as well. And since then, there's been a memoir, The Man Who Forgot How to Read (2007) and another Cooperman book, 2008's East of Suez.
Howard Engel is my hero.
-- Donald Westlake
-- Ruth Rendell
-- Julian Symons
SHORT STORIES & NOVELLAS
Specially commissioned by Toronto bookstore owner Frans Donker. This 84-page novella was printed privately, with a press run of only 2000 and was distributed to friends and customers to promote BookCity's anniversary. In 2001, Engel again contributed a 124-page novella, My Brother's Keeper, available only to BookCity customers, to mark BookCity's 25th anniversary. This time around, he teamed up with fellow CanCrime author Eric Wright. The story features both Benny and Wright's Toronto cop, Inspector Charlie Salter. My Brother's Keeper was later expanded into a novel.
Co-written with Eric Wright; also featuring Charlie Salter)
Oliver Sacks' great New Yorker piece from June 2010 on the strange case of Howard Engel.
Respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith.
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