Sunday, February 28, 2021


MURDER SEES THE LIGHT by Howard Engel (Penguin, 1985)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

Canadian P.I. Benny Cooperman (Murder On Location, etc.) takes to the woods in this one - Algonquin National Park, where he's staying at primitive Petawawa Lodge and keeping an eye on super-successful evangelist Norbert Patten, head of the Ultimate Church. Patten's hiding out as he waits for a Supreme Court verdict on the validity of his church, hoping to dodge some bitter enemies at the same time. His return to the locale of his youth seems to trigger some macabre happenings. 

When the body of stoic Indian guide Aeneas DuFond is discovered in a culvert, Benny takes a closer look at some of the lodge's visitors - among others, we have commanding Maggie McCord and her nasty, no-good son George; Aeneas' schoolteacher brother Hector; illicit lovebirds Des and Delia and gorgeous, mysterious Aline Barbour.

I've read and really enjoyed a diverse array of Canadian crime writing over the last dozen or so years I've been blogging about books. Canada is one of my favourite countries to spend time in (feels familiar to us Kiwis, just more spread out), and they also have some terrific crime writers - many who fly below the global radar (akin to terrific Kiwi and Aussie writers, or Irish writers etc, until recent years) in a marketplace so long dominated by British and American storytellers. 

But for whatever reason, I hadn't yet gotten to a legend of the Canadian crime writing scene: Howard Engel. I'd heard his name mentioned by Canadian authors I'd interviewed, or via contacts I had with Crime Writers of Canada etc. Engel garnered some global recognition too, with his books published in 20 countries. A founding member of CWC in the 1982, the Toronto storyteller was the author of more than 20 books, and was particularly known for his long-running series starring Ontario private eye Benny Cooperman. Engel won the Arthur Ellis Award for this book, MURDER SEES THE LIGHT, and was later the recipient of the Derrick Murdoch Award for contributions to the mystery genre, and became the first-ever recipient of the Grand Master Award from Crime Writers of Canada in 2014. 

When I was last in Canada a few years ago I nabbed several local crime novels, including this one (from a secondhand store - the image above is the cover of my book). And recently I plucked it off the shelf to give Howard Engel a try. It's interesting reading a book that was published 35 years ago, with the absence of so much modern technology but still a few decades more modern than the interwar and wartime classics from the likes of Christie, Marsh, Hammett, and Chandler et al. 

The fourth in the Cooperman series (14 novels published between 1980 and 2008) sees the private eye heading into the wilderness of Alqonquin Park, a rugged place of interconnecting lakes and waterways more suitable for canoe-driven excursions than multi-day hiking trips. It's a bit of a fish out of water situation for urbanite Cooperman, who has to adjust to his surroundings while trying to keep an eye on the leader of an evangelical church who is in hiding. There's a cast of interesting characters, and Cooperman has to sift through a variety of events and personalities to piece things together.

I spent a couple of days canoeing through Algonquin several years ago, and enjoyed revisiting the Park via Engel's storytelling. It is a special place. There's a nice tone to Engel's writing, and I came away from my first taste of the Cooperman series seeing it as a bit of a softer Canadian take on the classic hardboiled private eye tale, with the added twist of the rural setting in this instalment moving things further from the mean streets. The mean gravel roads, hiking trails, or lake currents, perhaps.

As Engel is reported as saying over the years, he was inspired to write private eye tales by the likes of Chandler and Hammett, but his Benny Cooperman tales were more soft-boiled than hard-boiled. 

Cooperman comes across as the sort of thoroughly decent investigator who it would be enjoyable to spend time with over several books. A Jewish Canadian private eye who relies more on his brains than brawn. The story flows smoothly, and Engel has a nice unobtrusive prose style that still has a touch of personality to it. The mystery storyline itself knits together well as things unfold in an enjoyably leisurely (more than fast-paced, page-tearing) way - with some nice cleverness along the journey. 

Along with a lovely dose of wit and humour threaded through proceedings. 

Overall, I finished my first taste of Howard Engel's Benny Cooperman series with a smile on my face. Like a sunny day on the lake, there was just something lovely and pleasantly enjoyable about it all - even with the murders and dark deeds thrown in. A book and series worth (re)visiting. 

Craig Sisterson is a lapsed Kiwi lawyer who now lives in London and writes for magazines and newspapers in several countries. He’s interviewed hundreds of crime writers and talked about the genre on national radio, top podcasts, and onstage at festivals on three continents. Craig's been a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards, McIlvanney Prize, is founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards and co-founder of Rotorua Noir. His book SOUTHERN CROSS CRIME, was published in 2020.

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