I suppose most of you are familiar with the term “hard boiled” detective? It’s usually used to describe some tough as nails Private Investigator from the mean streets of a big American city. He can take a punch and a kiss with equal aplomb, and no matter how many injuries he sustains, from either the kiss or the punch, he never seems to show any wear or tear. Over the years Humphrey Bogart, Robert Mitchum, and legions of other tough guy actors have brought people like Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlow or Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade to life on the movie screen to give us all a clear image in our heads of what one of these characters should look like.
Ever since I read my first Howard Engel detective story featuring his character Benny Cooperman from the fictional small town of Grantham, Ontario, Canada, If I imagined him looking like anyone at all it was Saul Rubinek. It turns out, I wasn’t alone in that, as Rubinek played Benny both times he was brought to life on celluloid by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) in television adaptations of two of Engel’s books. Small, sort of round, rumpled, and obviously Jewish, neither Rubinek or by extension Benny are what one would call hard boiled.
So what is the opposite of the hard boiled detective – soft boiled? It just doesn’t have the same ring to it as hard boiled, does it? Yet what do you call a guy whose mother keeps wondering why he can’t be more like his older brother, the successful surgeon who lives in Toronto, and whose father was in the ready to wear business for fifty years before retiring to become the gin rummy champ at the club? Instead of whisky for breakfast at some down at the heels bar in a grimy part of the city, Benny lives for egg salad sandwiches and a glass of milk.
The other thing about Benny is that if he gets hit, either in the head or the heart, it hurts. In his newest adventure, East Of Suez, being published by Penguin Canada on May 8, 2008, he’s still recovering from a serious bang on the head that’s left his memory scrambled and his reading ability reduced to spelling words out letter by letter. After months of rehabilitation Benny has finally returned to his office in Grantham in order to close down his Private Investigation business. He figures that there’s not much good he can do for clients if he’s no longer able to remember their names or the particulars of their case the second after they tell him.
(In 2001, Howard Engel suffered a stroke that left him with a rare condition called alexia without agraphia, which scrambled his memory and left him unable to read but still able to write. He had to learn how to read all over again and come up with methods compensating for not being able to remember a person’s name the second after he heard it. Since the stroke, he has written an account of his recovery, The Man Who Forgot How To Read, and this is the second Cooperman novel he’s written with his hero having to cope with a similar condition).
But the best laid plans of mice, men, and private investigators never seem to work out the way they’re supposed to. When an old school friend shows up in the office one day while Benny is trying to spell his way word by word through old case files, she convinces him to pick up stakes and head off to South East Asia and investigate the disappearance of her husband in the small country of Murinam.
Vicky and her husband Jake had been running a successful diving business for the tourist trade when the government decided they wanted more than just the taxes the couple were paying, and nationalized the company. When the local politico who took the business over ran it into the ground, he hired Jake back to run it and set him up to take the fall for the place’s mismanagement. Benny’s job is to see if he can find out what happened to Jake, recover any of the family’s fortunes, and of course come out the other side alive.
Murinam still holds onto more than a few mementos of its French past, and is also marked by the more recent disaster of the tsunami. Fading and crumbling French colonial architecture mix with wrecks of ships cast up on shore three hundred metres from the beach, and a community of European and North American ex-patriots that seem to have stepped from the pages of a Graham Greene or a Somerset Maugham novel. Acclimatizing is complicated for Benny by his inability to remember the name of his hotel or the names of anyone he meets, even with the use of his memory book (a note book to write down everything he’s come to know his memory will fail to retain).
Yet in spite of being slowed down by the quirks of his brain and his bout of the local version of “Tourista” stomach, Benny soon finds himself ankle deep in suspects and intrigue. When dead bodies start showing up, and the police and government start taking a little bit too much of an unhealthy interest in his nosing around, Benny knows he must be getting somewhere. Now if only he could remember what it was he said or who he saw that could have triggered those reactions.
With East Of Suez, Howard Engel has created another wonderful story featuring the self-deprecating and intelligent Benny Cooperman. We can’t help but admire Benny as he muddles through his days, vainly trying to remember the name for the local three-wheeled taxis, while gradually chipping away at the mystery that surrounds the disappearance of his client’s husband. The sounds, sights, and smells of Murinam’s capital city Takot come to life vividly on the page as he wanders its streets, sampling the food and chatting to any and everyone who might help him crack the case.
All of the characters Benny meets, from the pretty marine biologist, the Catholic priest running the orphanage, and the writer who specializes in travel books for the Kosher trade interested in exotic locales, are potential players in his little drama and wonderful colour for the reader. Of course any one of them could also be a cold blooded killer, and as the bodies start to pile up Benny has to hope that he can read his own writing quickly enough to prevent himself from joining the body count.
Don’t come to the pages of a Benny Cooperman novel looking for a hard drinking, hard talking guy packing heat. The only heat Benny might carry would be pocket warmers for a stakeout in the middle of a cold Ontario winter. Of course in East Of Suez he won’t need to worry about his hands getting cold from the chill of winter – in fact he might just start finding it a little too hot for comfort.