Howard Engel is the author of the Benny Cooperman series of detective novels, thus has created one of the most popular and well-loved characters in Canadian fiction. Like Benny, Howard was born in St. Catharines, Ontario, in 1931, and also like Benny, he is the son of a clothing-store owner. He started out as a teacher, but after a brief stint in Sault Ste Marie, he began working at the CBC in 1960 as a writer and reporter — filing reports from Paris, London, Spain, and Cyprus until 1967, when he became Executive Producer of Sunday Supplement, The Arts in Review, and Robert Weaver’s programme, Anthology. He was also married at that time to the writer Marian Engel.
It was around then that he began writing himself; as he says, he interviewed so many dubious writers for the CBC that he eventually realized that if they could do it, so could he. The first Benny Cooperman novel — The Suicide Murders — appeared in 1980, and was quickly followed, at the rate of about one a year, by The Ransom Game, Murder on Location, Murder Sees the Light, and A City Called July, in 1986. That was also the year that Howard founded the Crime Writers of Canada, an organization that has promoted and supported crime fiction so well that Canadian crime writers are counted among the most accomplished in the field.
There have been more Benny Coopermans, as well as a few non-Bennys: a nonfiction book called Lord High Executioner — a study of hangmen in Canada — came out in 1997, as did his novel featuring the young Arthur Conan Doyle: Mr. Doyle and Dr. Bell. And in 1985, Howard also wrote, with his late second wife Janet Hamilton, Murder in Space, under the joint pseudonym F.X. Woolf.
Three years ago, as Howard recounts, he got up one morning, went out to the porch to get his Globe and Mail, sat down to read it and wondered why the paper had been printed in the Cyrillic alphabet. ‘This seemed to me,’ he recalls, ‘to be a new low, even for the Globe and Mail.’ It turned out that he had suffered a stroke during the night that has left him with the singular disability of being unable to read. None of his other faculties were affected — he can still quote reams of poetry, he can still write, but he cannot read what he has written. Despite this incredible drawback, Howard has since finished another Benny Cooperman novel — The Memory Book — which is coming out shortly with Penguin with an afterward by Oliver Sacks, with whom Howard has been in correspondence as a result of his stroke.
Howard has received an honorary doctorate from Brock University (Benny Cooperman’s Second University), has been the Barker Fairly Distinguished Visitor in Canadian Culture at the University of Toronto, and last year received the inaugural Grant Allan Award for his contribution to Canadian crime fiction. And it is with great pleasure that this year we are adding the Matt Cohen Award to Howard’s lengthy and well-deserved list of honours.”
— 2004 Matt Cohen Award Committee (Patsy Aldana, Graeme Gibson, and Wayne Grady)