Benny Cooperman’s author dies at 88

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.

Howard Engel

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 clichés 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.

 

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The Best Laid Plans

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When Judy Penz Sheluk put out a call for submissions to her new crime fiction anthology, and added that previously published stories would also  considered, my ears pricked up. Opportunities to showcase stories that have already been in print are GOLDEN.

So I sent off “The Sweetheart Scamster,” a Pat Tierney tale published in Thirteen in 2013 and a finalist for a 2014 Derringer Award. I was delighted that it made Judy’s cut!

In the story, Pat’s client Trudy Sullivan, a widow of three years, has a new hairdo and a new man in her life. And that makes Pat sit up straight in her chair.  As a financial advisor, she is well aware that lonely, affluent widows can be easy marks for sweetheart scamsters.

“The Sweetheart Scamster” is one of 21 stories in The Best Laid Plans. The other authors are Tom Barlow, Susan Daly, Lisa de Nikolits, P.A. De Voe, Peter DiChellis, Lesley A. Diehl, Mary Dutta, C.C. Guthrie, William Kamowski, V.S. Kemanis, Lisa Lieberman, Edward Lodi, L.D. Masterson, Edith Maxwell, Judy Penz Sheluk, K.M. Rockwood, Peggy Rothschild, Johanna Beate Stumpf, Vicki Weisfeld and Chris Wheatley.

Catherine Astolfo, two-time winner of the Arthur Ellis Award for Best Crime Short Story, calls the collection “Delicious! A feast of short bites that add up to a very satisfying literary meal.”

And Texas author and reviewer Kevin Tipple says The Best Laid Plans is “an entertaining collection of tales that deliver in all aspects.”

The Best Laid Plans is the third anthology my stories will appear in this year. “Dining Out” was included in Murder Most Edible, which was released in May. And “Farewell to the King” will make its debut in In the Key of Thirteen, which will be published this fall.

I’m so proud to have writing included in all these collections!

The Best Laid Plans is available for purchase on Amazon.ca and Amazon.com.

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Novel II starts up again tomorrow!

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Tomorrow, Tuesday April 9, my course Novel II: How to Develop Your Novel to advance your novels-in-progress starts up again at Toronto’s George Brown College, St. James Campus (200 King Street East). And there’s still room for a few more students.

We’ll meet once a week for 12 weeks, right through to June 25. The class will offer:

  • 36 class hours;
  • workshop format;
  • small number of students;
  • the opportunity to have your pages critiqued in class almost every week.

Students must have completed Novel I — OR an approved equivalent. Such as a number of published short stories or a novel manuscript that is nearing completion.

Click here to view the course description and to register.

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Forty Guns: woman as a force of nature

Tonight, to celebrate International Women’s Day, Ed and I watched the 1947 American western noir, Forty Guns (Samuel Fuller). In her last great romantic role, Barbara Stanwyck (at the age of 50) plays the tough, sexy Arizona cattle queen, Jessica Drummond, who lords it over the territory with an iron fist. The film’s opening sequence depicts Drummond as a force of nature, ripping across the plains with her 40  gunmen, dominating the landscape around her.

More complex than many women in westerns, Drummond is respected and feared by all the male characters in the movie, and at least one has a pathetic crush on her. But Forty Guns sadly follows the pattern of so many Hollywood films that ultimately punish strong women characters. Drummond is the boss, the power figure in the story, but she has to be tamed. She is dragged by a horse through a tornado scene, and shown grovelling for her lover’s attention in the finale. What a pity!

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Mystery Most Edible looks good enough to eat!

The cover of Mystery Most Edible has just been released. Making me very proud that my tale, “Dining Out,” about a shady restaurant critic is included in the collection.

Mystery Most Edible will be officially launched at the Malice Domestic 14 convention May 3-5 in Bethesda, Maryland.

Here is the complete list of the anthology’s 36 crime stories, all involving food, and their authors:

Brown Recluse by Marcia Adair
A Slice of Heaven by Laura Brennan
A Death in Yelapa by Leslie Budewitz
Pie Sisters by Richard Cass
Too Many Cooks Spoil the Murder by Lynne Ewing
Pig Lickin’ Good by Debra H Goldstein
Quiche Alain by Marni Graff
A Cup of Tea by Parnell Hall
Snowbirding by Kristin Kisska
The Blue Ribbon by Cynthia Kuhn
Up Day Down Day Deadly Day by Ellen Larson
Sticky Fingers by L.D. Masterson
The Extra Ingredient by Joan Long
Carne Diem by Sharon Lynn
Sushi Lessons by Edith Maxwell
Killer Chocolate Chips by Ruth McCarty
Dining Out by Rosemary McCracken
Bad Ju-Ju by M.A. Monnin
The Cremains of the Day by Josh Pachter
The Missing Ingredient for Murderous Intent by Elizabeth Perona
Just Desserts by Adele Polomski
Diet of Death by Ang Pompano
Gutbombs ‘N’ Guinness by Lisa Preston
Turn the Sage by Stephen Rogers
Death at the Willard Hotel by Verena Rose
Deadly In-Flight Dining by Sara Rosett
Honor Thy Father by Harriette Sackler
Bring It by Terry Shames
The Gourmand by Nancy Cole Silverman
The Last Word by Shawn Reilly Simmons
Bull Dog Gravy by Mark Thielman
Morsels of the Gods by Victoria Thompson
Mrs. Beeton’s Sausage Stuffing by Christine Trent
First Day of the Year by Gabriel Valjan
Murder Takes the Cupcake by Kate Willett
The Secret Blend by Stacy Woodson
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‘I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse’

Fourth warmup before the Oscar awards: The Godfather. The 1972 motion picture about the struggle for survival of a New York Mafia family is regarded as one of the greatest films of world cinema. It won Oscars for best picture, best actor (Marlon Brando, seen in the photo above) and best adapted screenplay.

The story is told from the viewpoint of the Corleone family, and the viewer comes to understand, even condone, the terrible activities of Don Corleone and his sons.  The only character who is seen as truly corrupt is the bent police officer McCluskey. What the viewer remembers about the Corleones is the closeness, the warmth of their family ties: festive weddings and funerals, the rich flavor of Italian home life. Vito Corleone is the epitome of a good family man.

Director Francis Ford Coppola called the story a metaphor for American capitalism. “…the tale of a great king with three sons: the oldest was given his passion and his aggressiveness; the second his sweet nature; the third his intelligence, cunning and coldness.”

Memorable lines from The Godfather:

  • “I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse.”
  • “Revenge is a dish best served cold.”
  • “A man who doesn’t spend time with his family can never be a real man.”
  • “If I wanted you dead, you’d be dead already.”
  • “Leave the gun. Take the cannoli.”

Francis Ford Coppola directs the opening wedding scene in The Godfather.

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Driving Miss Daisy, at 30

Our third warmup for the Oscars on Sunday was Driving Miss Daisy. The 1989 film features Morgan Freeman and the late Jessica Tandy as two stubborn old people, both facing different types of segregation in the deep American south in the 1950s and ’60s. The film tracks their growing friendship over 25 years, a fraught period in American history, and holds out the possibility of understanding across racial lines, at least between Blacks and Jews.

Driving Miss Daisy won four Academy Awards, including best picture.

Tandy received the best actress award for her role of Daisy Werthan, a wealthy, strong-willed Jewish widow. At the age of 80, the veteran actress took the character from a sprightly widow in her 60s to a frail, confused woman in her 90s.

As Daisy’s chauffeur Hoke Colburn, Freeman reprised the role he originated in the Pulitzer Prize-winning stage play. He is every bit Tandy’s match, and the chemistry between them is wonderful to watch.

The choice of Miss Daisy for best picture award was controversial. Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, which turned the spotlight on a New York race riot on the hottest day of the year, was nominated for only two Oscars (supporting actor and original screenplay) and went home empty-handed. Lee was vocal in his anger at losing the Oscar race, and he accused Americans of  being more comfortable with how Miss Daisy handled race than his film did. He acknowledged that Freeman was a great actor, but attacked him for accepting a part that depicted a Black in a subservient role. The New York Times asked if Miss Daisy had a “subtext that summons up a longing for the good old days before the civil rights movement.”

Miss Daisy leans heavily on sentimentality, but it shouldn’t be condemned for not taking a stronger stand on  race relations. It’s an immensely nuanced film that portrays people caught in the terrible ironies of their times.

Over time, Daisy comes to admire Dr. Martin Luther King, and she attends a gala dinner where he is the guest speaker. “Things have changed,” she observes. Yet, although she has an extra ticket, it never occurs to her to invite Hoke to come in to the dinner with her. “Things haven’t changed all that much,” he mutters.

 

 

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