Sunday, September 12, 2010


Gotta love those pioneers!

Yesterday, Linda reviewed a new book by Lee Lamothe, one of many new Canadian mysteries hitting the shelves. There’s been a bonanza this last few years. But it hasn’t always been this way. Although the 1960’s and 1970’s brought a surge in our literary fiction, Canadian mysteries were still a rare find in bookstores and libraries.

I’ve always been nuts about crime fiction: British, American, Swedish, you name it. Then some time in the early eighties, I heard a bit of wonderful news about a Canadian PI novel. I rushed into Books Canada in downtown Ottawa and breathlessly asked if it was true that there was a Canadian mystery series. ‘I think it’s written by a guy named Cooperman,” I said.

The bookseller reached for The Suicide Murders, the first Benny Cooperman, written, of course, by Howard Engel. Turned out Benny was too busy sleuthing, getting shot at and dodging his mother’s cooking to write a book, so Howard wrote it for him. But Benny sure could entertain. To make matters better, he’d already staked out his territory in a second book by the time I learned about him.

Before long, a mystery-loving friend clued me into the Charlie Salter series, police procedurals set in Toronto. As my middle-aged male buddy said, “The police procedure is interesting, but you care just as much about whether Charlie Salter
will end up coming home with the right Christmas tree lights as you do about solving the crime.” The author was the charming and urbane Eric Wright, who turned out eleven of Charlie Salter books as well as three other series, many short stories and a fine memoir. I loved them all.

It felt good to go into a bookstore – soon it was to be Prime Crime! – and find Canadian mysteries proudly on display. Howard and Eric regularly produced entertaining puzzles and I never missed out on a Charlie Salter or a Benny Cooperman.

Then in 1985 L.R. Wright burst on to the scene with The Suspect, a book that would win the B.C. Writer the coveted Edgar from the Mystery Writers of America and launch the R.C.M.P. Staff Sergeant Karl Alberg books. Well, some would say the Karl Alberg and Cassandra the librarian books. Again, these characters spoke to the readers. We cared about them. I have heard it said that tourists in lovely town of Sechelt would drop by the library and ask if Cassandra was working that day. Not sure it that’s true, but I hope it is.

Suddenly, there was a mystery buffet. All these writers were thoughtful enough to pop out a book a year and things were looking up. Crime Writers of Canada had been formed in 1984 and we’ve never looked back. This past few years, you could read a new Canadian mystery every week and still not get them all covered.

I will always be grateful to two Wrights and an Engel for making a difference. But there are many more. Who have I missed from the classic era (okay thirty years back!) of Canadian crime fiction? Belly up to the bar, folks, and be prepared to tell us the names of authors and titles of Canadian mysteries that stole your heart.

Mary Jane Maffini rides herd on three, soon to be three and a half, mystery series. You can check them out at


  1. I still remember reading The Suspect & thought it was amazing. All three authors truly left their mark on Canadian crime writing. We are so lucky!

  2. My TBR table has now become a groaning board! Great list to pursue, MJ.

  3. Thanks, Erika and Molly! I think I'd like to reread some of these books and will go on the hunt!


  4. I loved the Willows and Parker series written by Lawrence Gough in the eighties. And I remember reading Death in Don Mills (how very Toronto is that?) by Hugh Garner in the seventies. Right now I'm reading the rave reviews that the movie version of Barney's Version is getting at the Venice Film Festival and at Toronto International Film Festival. In this book Mordechai Richler proved himself a top-notch crime novelist as well as everything else.

  5. just for fun, i looked at Wikipedia for a list of known Canadian writers, found this astonishing long and wonderful compendium

  6. The first Canadian mystery writer I ever read, and in fact met, was Lyn Hamilton, who entertained and informed us as we solved murder all over the world with her Toronto antiques dealer sleuth. I will always miss Lyn, but she has left us some wonderful tales.

  7. Well this is fun! I loved the Parker and Willows books, Sue. I read all Laurence Gough's books. David that's a great site - light on mystery authors. We will have to declare war on it.

    Barb, we sure do miss Lyn. Those were terrific books and great travel adventures. I still have all eleven of them, signed.

  8. MJ -- great article! Thanks for posting. Your humour and boundless energy do as much for revitalising our Canadian industry as anything else we have going for us! (Except the great books, of course! LOL)

    Lyn is doubtless smiling down on us all...

  9. Thanks, Donna! You sure have energy and humour yourself. A Cape Breton thing?