One tough egg in a soft-boiled world; Howard Engel's Benny is back, and so is the author
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 13 May 2008)

Far from throwing him off his game, the famous bang on the head that scrambled Benny Cooperman's brains has expanded his reputation. The novels by Howard Engel starring Benny as a soft-boiled private eye are about to become inescapable in bookstores.

Penguin has re-launched the first 11 Cooperman books in paperback with a lively new design and a number emblazoned on the spine of each volume, so that obsessive Cooperman fans can shelve them in order of their creation, from No. 1, The Suicide Murders (1980), to No. 11, Memory Book (2005). This is an exceptional publishing event, something the French might do while promoting someone for a shot at the Nobel. Nobody has done it before, on this scale, for a Canadian.

Benny has established himself as the most insular character inhabiting our national literature. He lives in Grantham, Ont., a double for Engel's hometown, St. Catharines, Ont., and in the first 11 books he usually travels no farther than 111 kilo-metres down the highway to Toronto. As for the non-Canadian world, it consists of Miami, nothing else.

But brain injury has changed him. The loss of short-term memory and the loss of his ability to read have mysteriously encouraged a tolerance for foreign countries. In the 12th Cooperman novel, East of Suez (Penguin), he travels to Takot, the fictional capital of fictional Miranam, a one-time French colony. Takot, close to Thailand, is far from the peace, order and good government of Benny's homeland.

In other ways, though, Cooperman with a mental disability has grown more Coopermanish. As usual he terrifies the reader by blundering into situations he can't possibly understand, much less escape. But now he's not pretending he doesn't know what's going on: He genuinely doesn't know what's going on. In fact, he can't remember what went on 10 minutes ago.

Still, he penetrates an elaborate criminal plot involving Canadians and other foreigners who roost in Miranam for dubious purposes. Miranam is a place of eccentricity as well as menace. The head of state, who flunked out of Sandhurst, sets the tone. He's appointed himself a general and decreed that Miranam must have no other generals -- no General Motors, no General Electric, certainly no general contractors.

Sadly, travel has failed to improve Benny's palate. Surrounded by exotic cuisine, he keeps asking for a chopped-egg sandwich, his favourite lunch back home in Ontario. Miranamese restaurateurs consider this incomprehensible at best, insulting at worst. He's not deterred. At the end, we know what he'll order at the lunch counter if he ever extricates himself from violent, lawless Miranam and returns to the sweet boredom of Grantham.

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