Benny Cooperman

Created by Howard Engel

“She was the sort of woman that made you wish you’d taken another three minutes shaving… I felt a little under-dressed in my own office”

Oh Canada!

The Great White North may be under-represented in the private eye field, but we do have Howard Engel’s BENNY COOPERMAN, one of the most idiosyncratic and distinctive–and unapologetically Canadian–gumshoes in the racket.

Walking down the not-quite-mean streets of sleepy Grantham, Ontario (actually St. Catharines), Benny’s an endearingly awkward, mild-mannered kinda guy, soft-boiled at best–just a nice Jewish boy, really, content with a good book to read, and maybe a chopped egg sandwich now and then down at Diana Sweets.

But looks can be, oh, so deceiving. Beneath the exterior, Grantham isn’t quite so nice, and Benny’s not quite the putz he appears to be. He’s a shrewd, crafty and tenacious investigator. He doesn’t carry a gun, or even fight very well (eyes right>>>) but he displays endless reserves of patience, something anyone Jewish growing up in a small town in predominantly Protestant southern Ontario probably has more than a little experience with, and a yearning desire to see justice done.things made right.

Despite his unassuming nature, the series–starting with The Suicide Murders in 1980–is a real treat. He may just be “a sweet guy who’s found a job he likes, as a kind of tidier. He likes things tidy, and he worries away at them,” as Eric Wright, another Canadian mystery writer, puts it in Maxim Jakubowski’s 100 Great Detectives, but under it all is a passion for justice, a shrewd mind and a dogged determination that belies the soft exterior.

The Cooperman books aren’t comedies (comedies of manners, maybe), but they are very witty, sorta like a sly cross between P.G. Wodehouse and Raymond Chandler. With Canada acting as the midwife, maybe.

Benny went on to appear in radio and television adaptations (played by Saul Rubinek), and ended up appearing an even dozen novels and a handful of novellas and short stories, and became an inspiration for a generation or two of Canadian crime writers.



The creator of the Benny Cooperman series and one of the founders of The Crime Writers of Canada (serving as its chairperson 1986-87), Howard Engel has been dubbed “the Grand Old Man of Canadian crime fiction” by The Globe and Mail‘s Margaret Cannon.

After graduation from McMasters University in Hamilton, Ontario in 1955, where he received a B.A. in Humanities, he taught briefly in Sault St. Marie but soon began freelance writing and reporting for the CBC (Toronto). In 1960, he was assigned to Europe where he reported from Paris, London, Spain and Cyprus. He became executive producer of numerous cultural and literary programs as Sunday Supplement, The Arts in Review and Anthology for the CBC beginning in 1967. Over the years, his work included “specials” on Hemingway, Faulkner, MacLeish, Samuel Beckett and Raymond Chandler, which stoked his interest in crime fiction.  He wrote poetry, and he drew cartoons for Books in Canada.

In 1980, he published his first novel, The Suicide Murders, which helped spark the rebirth of Canadian crime fiction. In fact, Engel was a founding member of the Crime Writers of Canada, and was a winner of its Grand Master Award in 2014. He’s been a regular nominee for the CWC’s Arthur Ellis Awards (which seems fair, since it’s almost certainly Engel who named the award–Ellis was the pseudonym of Canada’s last official hangman)and has won their prestigious Derrick Murdoch Award for lifetime achievement.

Besides the Benny Cooperman books, he’s the author of non-fiction works such as Lord High Executioner, a history of capital punishment laced with more than a little black humour, and Crimes of Passion: An Unblinking Look at Murderous Love (2001). He’s also given us some stand-alone novels, such as Murder In Montparnasse, set in the literary scene of and Mr. Doyle and Dr. Bell, starring the young Arthur Conan Doyle and Dr. Joseph Bell, the real life model for Sherlock Holmes.

You want tough?

In July of 2001, Engel suffered a stroke that left him with alexia sine agraphia; a rare condition which affects the memory and the ability to read (although — amazingly — not the ability to write). Undaunted, Engel proceeded to face the blow head on. His next novel, Memory Book (2005), cast Benny in the same predictament. When the detective wakes up in a Toronto hospital without a clue how he got there, he must slowly rebuild his life — and find out who tried to kill him. The book could have turned into a sap fest, but Engel kept the story popping and pulled off something truly special–a book that had you pulling not just for the private eye, but his creator as well. And since then, there’s been a memoir, The Man Who Forgot How to Read (2007) and another Cooperman book, 2008’s East of Suez. Sadly, the publication of Over the River, another Cooperman novel, slated for 2018, was cancelled, and never released.

Engel was the recipient of the Arthur Ellis Award and the Derrick Murdoch Award, and was the first crime writer to receive the Writers’ Trust of Canada Matt Cohen Award. In 2007, he was invested into the Order of Canada. He was also the recipient of the Grand Master Award from the Crime Writers of Canada, an organization he co-founded.

Howard Engel was my hero.

He passed away in 2019, from complications from another stroke, and it’s going to haunt me forever that I saw him in the bar at Bouchercon in Toronto in 2017, deep in conversation with Peter Robinson, and I  thought I’d catch him later.


  • “Benny Cooperman is… a lot of fun to hang out with.”
    — Donald Westlake
  • “Mr. Engel is a born writer, a natural stylist. This is a writer who can bring a character to life in a few lines.”
    — Ruth Rendell
  • “Engel can turn a phrase as neatly as Chandler.”
    — Julian Symons
  • “The Cooperman novels are heavy on full-bodied characters, sharp dialogue, and rich humor. Benny just plain charms the socks off anyone he meets.”
    — Booklist


  • Benny Cooperman attends a family wedding in Montreal, and runs into Modercai Richler’s real estate developer Duddy Kravitz, who’s being investigated for some recently discovered scam or another involving Mayor Jean Drapeau and the 1976 Olympics.



  • “The Summer Kidnapping Caper” (1984, Murder Sees the Light)
  • “My Vacation in the Numbers Racket” (1984, Cold Blood)
    Benny’s mom does some detecting of her own.
  • “The Three Wise Guys” (1989, Mistletoe Mysteries)
  • “The Whole Megillah” (1992) Kindle it!
    Specially commissioned by Toronto bookstore owner Frans Donker. This 84-page novella was printed privately, with a press run of only 2000 and was distributed to friends and customers to promote BookCity’s anniversary. 
  • “The Reading” (1999, Mystery Midrash)
  • “My Brother’s Keeper” (2001) Buy this book
    Co-written with Eric Wright and featuring his series character Inspector Charlie Salter, a 124-page novella, available only to BookCity customers, to mark BookCity’s 25th anniversary. This time around, he teamed up with fellow CanCrime author Eric Wright.


    Written by Howard Engel, based on his novel
    Starring Saul Rubinek as BENNY COOPERMAN
    Written by Howard Engel, based on his novel
    Starring Saul Rubinek as BENNY COOPERMAN
    (1987, CBC)
    Based on the short story by Howard Engel
    Dramatized by Ken Gass
    Aired as part of the Vanishing Point anthology series.


    (1985, CBC)
    120 minutes
    Premiere: January 12, 1986
    Written by Howard Engel, based on his novel
    Directed by Graham Parker
    Produced by William Gough
    Associate producer: Alan Hausegger
    Original Music by Tommy Ambrose, Rick Wilkins
    Starring Saul Rubinek as BENNY COOPERMAN
    Also starring Kate Trotter, Sharry Flett, Chuck Shamata, Ken Pogue, Tanja Jacobs, Michael Hogan, Richard Donat, Peter Jobin, Helen Hughes, Israel Rubinek, Gerard Parkes, Maury Chaykin, Hugh Webster, Charles Jolliffe
    (1986, CBC)
    120 minutes
    Written by Howard Engel, based on his novel
    Director: Harvey Hart
    Producer: Alan Hausegger
    Executive Producer: Sam Levene
    Starring Saul Rubinek as BENNY COOPERMAN
    Also starring Janet Laine-Green, Kate Lynch, Peter Macneill, Joan Orenstein, Gary Reineke, Kenneth Welsh, Graham Greene


Respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith.

2 thoughts on “Benny Cooperman

  1. I enjoyed all of the Benny Cooperman mysteries. He’s very similar to Michael Z Lewin’s Albert Samson. It’s a shame that CBC never released The Suicide Murders & Murder Sees the Light on DVD.

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