Howard Engel

 

 

 

 


My 30-Year Relationship With a Fictional Character

By Beverley Slopen

 

Thirty years ago, author Howard Engel introduced his lovable and amusing sleuth Benny Cooperman.  Benny, the Jewish private detective from small town Ontario has now appeared in 12 adventures and is hailed as a Canadian treasure. 

 

"The great Canadian detective did not exist until Howard Engel invented Benny Cooperman," wrote Andrew Ryan recently in the Globe and Mail. “Benny Cooperman is a character who somewhere in the collective literary unconscious of this country was crying to be invented. Canada needed its own private eye and Howard Engel was clever enough to see that he would, of course, have his comic side,” Philip Marchand wrote in the Toronto Star. 

 

For me, though, Benny Cooperman represents something I never anticipated—a 30 year relationship with a fictional character. I have been talking about Benny Cooperman novels continuously since 1979 at book fairs and in publishers offices from Tokyo to London to New York. Benny is a fixture of my office life and occupies a swath of real estate in my file cabinets. 

 

When Howard Engel approached me in 1977 or 1978, to become his agent, I hesitated. Engel was already well known in Canadian literary and media circles, through his job as a producer at  CBC radio. Howard knew everyone I knew. Moreover, no Canadian publishers were issuing mysteries consistently, and Canada had did not have a strong program of massmarket paperback reprints, which is necessary for commercial fiction. 

 

“You don’t need me,” I told Howard, convinced that I would not be able to add value. “I need you,” Howard said. 

 

Reluctantly, I agreed to read his draft of The Suicide Murders. At the time, I was not a reader of mysteries and couldn’t tell a cozy from hard-boiled, or a private eye from a police procedural. But I was supporting myself as a journalist with a few clients on the side, and I had recently written a free-lance feature article on Ross Macdonald, one of the few mystery writers regarded as a great American novelist. In preparation, I read all of Macdonald’s Lew Archer mysteries, in addition to several mysteries by his wife Margaret Millar. I was particularly impressed that W. H. Auden had been a fan of Margaret Millar.

 

In the process, I gained an appreciation for the mystery genre and the richness that the form allowed for exploring character, the power and danger of secrets, and the  importance of place. Elements of suspense and the puzzle were a bonus. 

 

When I read Engel’s draft of The Suicide Murders, I liked it better than Macdonald’s novels. It had humour and liveliness. I connected with Benny in a way that I never did with Lew. Benny is a product of small town Canada. Although Ross Macdonald grew up in Kitchener, Ontario, California is his locale of choice. Lew is disconnected from community while Benny is tied to his community. 

 

Although Engel played with the mystery form, he respected it and avoided the trap of creating a pastiche. 

 

But that didn’t solve my problem of finding a publisher. Fortunately, John Pearce had just emigrated to Toronto from London where he had worked as an editor at Victor Gollancz. They published mysteries, lots of them, and not knowing the Canadian scene, he could find no reason not to try to get his new employer Clarke Irwin to try it. I never thought he would succeed. But Bill Clarke who had assumed the leadership of the family firm consented, and Benny Cooperman, was given a place at  the table.

 

Writing and publishing a book is like stuffing a note in a bottle and tossing it in the ocean. You never know if it will ever wash up on shore. John Pearce bundled up the manuscript and mailed it to bestselling author Ruth Rendell. Eventually, she wrote back, "Mr. Engel is a born writer, a natural stylist...This is a writer who can bring a character to life in a few lines." It was validation and helpful in persuading foreign publishers to read Engel. 

 

In 1979, I went to the Frankfurt Book Fair for the first time. In the German halls, I tried a few cold calls at some of the booths where publishers were sitting around smoking and drinking Sekt at 11 a.m. I left a description of The Suicide Murders. The next day, a German editor from Rowohlt came looking for me at the Canadian stand. He had a hole in his mystery list and needed a book. When we sold German rights, the legendary British publisher Livia Gollancz was persuaded that Benny would travel. And so Benny’s wider life began, extending to more than a dozen languages. .

 

It also meant that Howard was encouraged to write further adventures of Benny Cooperman. It’s not true that all good books get published. Good books don’t get written unless there are creative publishers and appreciative readers. 

 

I am grateful that after all these years, I still love Benny. He embodies the same sweetness and wit as his creator. I could not have summoned the staying power otherwise. An intense relationship with fictional characters is not smooth. It is tested continuously. There are the hundreds and hundreds of rejections in every territory. For every step forward, there are five or 10 set backs. Editors leave, publishers close, licenses expire, books go out of print, fashions change, sales slump. Margaret Atwood noted that artistic reputations are on a bungee cord. 

 

But there were countless pleasures. There was the celebrity-studded Benny Cooperman Mystery Weekend in Niagara-on-the-Lake organized by the late publisher Jack McClelland. There was a weekend visit in Algonquin Park where Saul Rubinek was starring in his second outing as Benny for the TV movie, Murder Sees The Light. And there have been the award banquets and honorary degrees conferred on Howard.

 

A significant gift, though, is showing me the value a literary agent brings, and why Howard was wiser than either of us knew, when he said he that he needed me, or someone like me. An agent is not just a filtering process, an introduction service, or a deal maker. Those are key aspects. But the most important one is building and maintaining a loyal team around an author. I was never tempted to step off the Benny caravan when we hit a rough patch. My affection and admiration for Howard Engel and Benny trump the disappointments and make the successes sweeter. I also learned that the only thing you can do is expose the work and continue to expose it. The only secret is persistence.

 

So who are the people who make up Team Benny in his 30 year life to date: international agents, publishers, CBC TV, hordes of book reviewers, publicists, journalists, broadcasters, anthologists, distributors, booksellers, literary jurors, fellow authors, and readers. 

 

Benny’s core team in Canada now is Penguin Books Canada, first with Cynthia Good who served as Engel’s editor, publisher and friend; Mary Adachi who has been invaluable; Diane Turbide, who helped rescue a manuscript when Howard suffered a mild stroke that left him with ability to write but unable to read what he had written; Nicole Winstanley and David Davidar who bravely reissued the entire dozen volumes clad in beautiful covers, and others in production, sales, accounting, and shipping. 

 

I can’t possibly list all the members of Team Benny.  It may take a village to raise a child, but it takes a country to make a writer. 

 

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