Howard Engel, one of the giants of Canadian crime fiction, died earlier this week at the age of 88. Engel was the author of the much-loved Benny Cooperman mystery series and co-founder of Crime Writers of Canada.
Benny Cooperman, the protagonist of Engel’s 14-novel series, is more Lieutenant Columbo than Mike Hammer. He’s a nice Jewish boy who runs a small detective agency in the sleepy town of Grantham. He doesn’t swear or carry a gun, and he’s squeamish about violence. (The fictional town of Grantham stands in for the real St. Catharines, Ontario, where Engel was born and grew up.)
The late crime writer Eric Wright described Benny as “a sweet guy who’s found a job he likes…a kind of tidier. Benny likes things tidy, and he worries away at them.” In The Suicide Murders, Benny refuses to drop the case because, he says, “It didn’t add up. And things that don’t add up give me heartburn.”
Engel’s fiction is full of sharp dialogue and witty one-liners that play with the clichés of detective fiction: “She was the sort of woman that made you wish you’d taken an extra three minutes shaving”—The Suicide Murders.
A former CBC producer, Engel was well aware that sometime you have to break the rules of writing–such as the rule about avoiding clichés because they often capture timeless wisdom. And Engel makes clichés work for him; they are all suited to Benny’s character. The result is whimsy and wit, a clever use of the English language.
Engel said he was strongly influenced by Raymond Chandler (The Big Sleep), and Dashiell Hammett (The Maltese Falcon).
He is also known for A Child’s Christmas in Scarborough, his parody of Dylan Thomas’s classic: “Whenever I remember Christmas as a child in Scarborough, I am again a boy among boys, riding our crash-barred, chrome-bedazzling bikes through the supermarket swing-doors, grabbing girls’ tuques and popsicles in the Mac’s Milk and diving with our arms spread to make angels in the snowbanks that the plows churned up.” It first aired as a monologue on CBC Radio, and was later published in print form by Key Porter Books.
Engel was appointed to the Order of Canada in 2007.