Engel, Howard 1931- (F. X. Woolfe)
ENGEL, Howard 1931- (F. X. Woolfe)
PERSONAL: Born April 2, 1931, in Toronto, Ontario, Canada; son of Jack (in the clothing business) and Lollie (a dancer; maiden name, Greisman) Engel; married Marian Ruth Passmore (a writer), 1962 (divorced, 1977); married Janet Evelyn Hamilton (a writer and editor; deceased), 1978; children: (first marriage) William and Charlotte (twins), (second marriage) Jacob Harry. Education: McMaster University, B.A. and teaching certificate, 1955; Ontario College of Education, secondary school teaching certificate, 1956. Hobbies and other interests: Swimming, canoeing, drawing.
ADDRESSES: Home—281 Major St., Toronto, Ontario M5S 2L5, Canada. E-mail—[email protected]
CAREER: High school teacher of English and history, Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, 1955-56; Canadian Broadcasting Corp. (CBC), Toronto, Ontario, broadcaster in Europe, 1960-64, executive producer of literary programs, 1976-80, radio producer and editor of drama programs, 1980-85; author. Barker Fairley Distinguished Visitor, University of Toronto, 1995-96 and 1996-97.
MEMBER: International Association of Crime Writers (founding member and member of executive committee), Association of Canadian Television and Radio Artists (ACTRA), Crime Writers of Canada (founding member), Mystery Writers of America.
AWARDS, HONORS: Ontario Arts Council grant, 1981; Arthur Ellis Award for Crime Fiction, Crime Writers of Canada, 1984, for Murder Sees the Light;
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ACTRA nomination for radio play Where Is Ambrose Small?; Gemini nomination, 1988, for screenplay The Suicide Murders; Harbourfront Festival Prize for Canadian Literature, 1990; Ontario Arts Council Grant, 1993; Film Fund Grant, 1995; (co-winner) Derek Murdoch Award, Crime Writers of Canada, 1998. Doctor of Laws, Brock University, St. Catharines, Ontario.
The Suicide Murders (also see below), Clarke, Irwin (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1980, published as The Suicide Notice, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1980.
The Ransom Game (also see below), Clarke, Irwin, 1981, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1985.
Murder Sees the Light (also see below), Viking (Markham, Ontario, Canada), 1984, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1985.
(With Janet Hamilton, under pseudonym F. X. Woolfe) Murder in Space, (novelization of television script), Viking (Markham, Ontario, Canada),1985.
A City Called July, Viking (Markham, Ontario, Canada), 1986.
A Victim Must Be Found, Viking (Markham, Ontario, Canada), 1988, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1989.
Dead and Buried, Viking (Markham, Ontario, Canada), 1990.
The Whole Megillah (novella), Book City, Bookmasters, 1991.
Murder in Montparnasse, Viking (Markham, Ontario, Canada), 1992.
There Was an Old Woman, Viking (Markham, Ontario, Canada), 1993.
A Child's Christmas in Scarborough, Key Porter Books (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1997.
Getting Away with Murder, Viking (Markham, Ontario, Canada), 1995, Overlook Press (New York, NY), 1998.
There Was an Old Woman: A Benny Cooperman Mystery, Overlook Press (Woodstock, NY), 2000.
The Cooperman Variations, Overlook Press (Woodstock, NY), 2000.
Behold the Lord High Executioner: An Unabashed Look at Hangmen, Headsmen and Their Kind (nonfiction), Key Porter Books (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1996, published as Lord High Executioner: An Unashamed Look at Hangmen, Headsmen, and Their Kind, Robson Books, 1997.
(Editor, with Eric Wright) Criminal Shorts: Mysteries by Canadian Crime Writers, Macmillan (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1992.
Crimes of Passion: An Unblinking Look at Murderous Love, (nonfiction), Firefly Books (Buffalo, NY), 2002.
Author of screenplays Murder Sees the Light, 1984, and The Suicide Murders, 1985; author of radio plays Where Is Ambrose Small?, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, 1984, Hangman's Hands, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, 1985, The Wrong Man: The Donald Marshall, Jr. Case, 1985, and The Ransom Game (adapted from his novel), 1985. Contributor to anthology of hitchhiking poems, Thumbprints, edited by Doug Fetherling, Peter Martin Associates, 1969. Contributor to periodicals, including American Review of Canadian Studies, Books in Canada, Globe & Mail (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), Queen's Quarterly, Tamarak Review, and the Toronto Star. Editor, Fingerprints newsletter, 1985-86. A collection of Engel's manuscripts is housed at the National Public Archives, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.
SIDELIGHTS: Mystery writer Howard Engel is the creator of Benny Cooperman, a Jewish private detective operating in a small industrial town in Ontario, Canada. "Perhaps the best of the Canadian mystery writers, Engel shows Ontario as it is—with few guns and lots of space," observed a reviewer in the Washington Post Book World. Critics have frequently praised the Cooperman mysteries for their unique descriptions and humor: Engel's detective exhibits a fondness for egg-salad sandwiches on white bread and quirky one-liners, such as "I remembered the occasions the way a headstone remembers the name carved into it," and "The wind whipped under my overcoat feeling for my liver." Randall Short, in the New York Times Book Review, maintained that "the detection seems almost beside the point; what is really of interest is Mr. Engel's detailed rendering of his hero's mundane pleasures."
Engel introduced Cooperman to readers in 1980 in The Suicide Murders. In this popular mystery, Cooperman is called on to determine whether several suicides are actually homicides; in the course of solving the case, he finds himself threatened by both law enforcers and criminals. Newgate Callendar praised the novel in the New York Times Book Review, calling The Suicide Murders a "smoothly written, well-plotted book much superior to most of its genre." Reviewer Mary Gervais had a similar view in her Windsor Star review, deeming the book "a cut above anything typical in the mystery field."
Several other novels followed in quick succession, including Murder Sees the Light, in 1984, and 1986's A Victim Must be Found. In Dead and Buried, the seventh novel in the series, environmental concerns are highlighted as Cooperman investigates the possible murders of two men gathering facts on toxic wastes being dumped by local industries. Reviewing the novel for the Toronto Globe & Mail, Margaret Cannon noted that Engel's Cooperman "has evolved into a more interesting character than his younger self. There's the usual chopped-egg sandwich and one de rigueur scene with Mom but, aside from that, Benny Cooperman is all grown up." Derrick Murdock wrote of Cooperman in the Globe & Mail, "He belongs . . . to the familiar world of weekly family dinners, junk movies and friendships going back to his schooldays. He prefers to laugh at himself rather than at others. Perhaps those qualities, as much as the distinctiveness of the settings, account for Benny Cooperman's becoming one of Canada's most popular literary exports in recent years."
Cooperman returned in the 2000 release, There Was an Old Woman. In this tale the sleuth is approached by old Kogan, his building's janitor, to investigate the mysterious death of the man's girlfriend. The detective "agrees," noted a Publishers Weekly reviewer, "asking only that Kogan fix his leaky toilet in payment." When it becomes apparent that the victim left a fortune, two more murders follow. While the Publishers Weekly contributor called this installment one that "falters" compared to other Cooperman books, Booklist's David Pitt had more to recommend in There Was an Old Woman, saying that this installment is "heavy on full-bodied characters, sharp dialogue, and rich humor." In The Cooperman Variations the low-rent detective stars in his "wittiest case ever," according to a critic for Kirkus Reviews, as Benny goes undercover to expose wrongdoing at a television network while protecting his high-school flame, Vanessa, now a high-powered entertainment executive.
Engel commented on his popular series in St. James Guide to Crime and Mystery Writers: "My intention in creating Benny Cooperman was to turn the tables on what had been already done in crime fiction. I wanted a Canadian detective, instead of American or British; I wanted a small-towner, rather than a big-city-sleuth; a Jew, rather than a Christian, a soft-boiled rather than a hard-boiled private investigator; someone who was sickened at the sight of blood, who didn't fall into bed with every female in the story, who was not a gourmet cook, who couldn't take a lot of strong drink, who was not a great success.... Benny is not a spoof on the American private eye. He is a man of the 1980s and 1990s being as honest as he can afford to be."
"Everything about Benny is, in typical Canadian fashion, unflashy and low-key. He lives in a furnished room at the local hotel. His favorite meal is a choppedegg sandwich and a glass of milk, followed by a dish of ice cream. He eschews violence and doesn't own a gun. Drinking often gives him a headache and he sometimes gets sick at the sight of a dead body. His best leads come not from brilliant deductions but painstaking library research. Even his similes are uninspired compared with most of his peers," remarked David Geherin in St. James Guide to Crime and Mystery Writers. "But he gets the job done. Like Hammett's Continental Op, whom he resembles in many ways, he sticks to a case until he gets an answer. His methods may be hit and miss, but as Benny himself notes, 'It's doggedness that pays off in the end.'"
The author took a break from Cooperman sagas with Murder in Montparnasse. The book invokes 1920s Paris, when the famous denizens of Montparnasse—including Gertrude Stein—cross paths with characters modeled after Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and others. Though Ann Bruns of Bookreporter felt that this book lacked plotting and dramatic tension, Booklist critic Bill Ott welcomed Murder in Montparnasse as "all a bit silly but certainly good fun." Turning to nonfiction, Engel produced the true-crime book Crimes of Passion: An Unblinking Look at Murderous Love. The case studies in this volume cover nearly two centuries of homicide in the name of amore. Such names as Kenya's Lord Erroll, author Anne Tyler, and sports star O. J. Simpson figure into the sometimesunsolved mysteries. "Hot stuff politely told" is how Mike Tribby of Booklist characterized the work.
Engel once told CA: "Mine has been a rather scattered life, quite literally all over the map. For a five-year period I was the executive producer of literary programs in radio for the CBC. That meant that I produced Anthology, the CBC's flagship literary program. During that time I got to know many Canadian writers and rejoiced that Anthology was the lifeline to Canadian writers everywhere.
"But there I was, a eunuch in a harem. I saw the job being done all around me but I couldn't do it myself. So I tried my hand at poetry in 1969. Poets Gwendolyn MacEwan, Tom Marshall, and Doug Fetherling encouraged me. My work was included in an anthology of hitchhiking poems. At the time my first novel, The Suicide Murders, came out, the longest work I had published was an eleven-page poem in Queen's Quarterly."
In 1985, Engel left the CBC to become a full-time writer. "I don't know what exactly turned me toward mystery fiction," he told CA. "Raymond Chandler certainly helped; I had become fascinated with his love of language when I was preparing a documentary on him. I like the way he invented a slang that would not grow old. So I thought I'd try my hand. The Suicide Murders was completed in a very rough draft in about ten weeks. Every book since has taken longer. The writer is always tripping over the publicist, the editor, and the interviewer. It becomes harder and harder just to sit down and write.
"I set The Suicide Murders in the Niagara peninsula because that is where I grew up. Grantham is that part of St. Catharines, Ontario, I still carry about with me. In Grantham I am permitted to build bridges, erect skyscrapers, hospitals, and other public works that would be forbidden to me if I had to stick to a documentary recreation of St. Catharines. When it suits the plot I can straighten the Eleven Mile Creek. It wouldn't be possible on the Twelve Mile Creek, since it's real.
"I wanted to make that part of the Canadian map visible for the first time. That's what a writer does: He makes a selection from the mass of detail and picks only those that appeal to him. If he is good enough, the next time you pass through that particular landscape, you'll see it through the writer's eyes. That's what Mark Twain did for the Mississippi and what Faulkner did for the American south. Grantham, Ontario, is no Yoknapatawpha County, but it's all my own and I'm stuck with it."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
St. James Guide to Crime and Mystery Writers, 4th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1996.
American Libraries, August, 1999, review of Murder in Montparnasse, p. 101.
Booklist, January 1, 1998, Stephanie Zvirin, review of Getting Away with Murder, p. 782; July, 1999, Bill Ott, review of Murder in Montparnasse, p. 1927; June 1, 2000, David Pitt, review of There Was an Old Woman, p. 1863; July, 2001, David Pitt, review of Dead and Buried, p. 1986; May 15, 2002, Mike Tribby, review of Crimes of Passion: An Unblinking Look at Murderous Love, p. 1558; August, 2002, Pitt, review of The Cooperman Variations, p. 1930.
Globe & Mail (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), October 13, 1984; September 27, 1986; October 1, 1988; December 3, 1988; October 13, 1990; November 3, 2001, review of Crimes of Passion and My Brother's Keeper, p. D7, D18.
Kirkus Reviews, February 1, 1998, review of Getting Away with Murder, p. 154; August 1, 1999, review of Murder in Montparnasse, p. 1174; July 15, 2001, review of Dead and Buried, p. 981; June 15, 2002, review of The Cooperman Variations, p. 841.
Library Journal, February 1, 1998, Rex Klett, review of Getting Away with Murder, p. 116; August, 1999, Rex Klett, review of Murder in Montparnasse, p. 145; July, 2000, Rex Klett, review of There Was an Old Woman, p. 146; August, 2001, Rex Klett, review of Dead and Buried, p. 169; May 1, 2002, Sarah Jent, review of Crimes of Passion, p. 118; August, 2002, Rex Klett, review of The Cooperman Variations, p. 150.
Maclean's, October 25, 1982; July 1, 1995, p. 69.
New York Times Book Review, April 8, 1984, p. 18; March 24, 1985; June 23, 1985; November 10, 1985; April 6, 1986; March 8, 1987, p. 29; October 30, 1988, p. 26; September 19, 1999, Marilyn Stasio, review of Murder in Montparnasse, p. 28.
Publishers Weekly, July 12, 1999, review of Murder in Montparnasse, p. 79; July 3, 2000, review of There Was an Old Woman, p. 51.
Quill & Quire (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), September, 2001, review of Crimes of Passion p. 49.
Times Literary Supplement, August 30, 1985; July 17, 1987.
Washington Post Book World, August 9, 1992.
Windsor Star, November 1, 1980, Mary Gervais, review of The Suicide Murders.
Book Reporter,http://aol.bookreporter.com/ (September 6, 2002), Ann Bruns, review of Murder in Montparnasse.*