"Home Sweet Havoc": Howard Engel's Niagara in Print and Film

By Rose, Marilyn; Sloniowski, Jeannette | Journal of Canadian Studies, Fall 2005 | Go to article overview

"Home Sweet Havoc": Howard Engel's Niagara in Print and Film


Rose, Marilyn, Sloniowski, Jeannette, Journal of Canadian Studies


In "placing" his homespun detective Benny Cooperman in "Grantham," Ontario, Howard Engel creates a Niagara that is far more than a tourist destination informed by the spectacular natural phenomenon that is Niagara Falls. Rather, Engel's Niagara is a cultural nexus in which power and power relations, especially as they relate to the politics of exclusion, are explored with a mordant eye and a critical awareness of the consequences when small cities and fertile agricultural regions are left to the political devices of unrestrained hegemonic interests. After exploring Engel's fiction in light of contemporary theories of place, space and post-coloniality, this essay examines a made-for-television film adaptation of The Suicide Murders and asks whether the film retains the complexities and moral vision of the novelistic original.

En « situant » son détective imaginaire Benny Cooperman à « Grantham » (Ontario), Howard Engel crée un Niagara qui est beaucoup plus qu'une simple destination touristique agrémentée par un phénomène naturel spectaculaire-les chutes Niagara. Le Niagara de M. Engel est plutôt un nexus culturel dans le cadre duquel le pouvoir et les relations de puissance, spécialement concernant les politiques d'exclusion, sont examinés avec un oeil perçant et une reconnaissance critique des répercussions qui surviennent lorsque de petites villes et des régions agricoles fertiles tombent dans les mains politiques d'intérêts hégémoniques sans restrictions. Après avoir étudié les ouvrages de fiction de M. Engel, en tenant compte des théories contemporaines de lieu, d'espace et de postcolonialité, le présent article examine une adaptation cinématographique créée pour la télévision du livre The Suicide Murders et essaie de voir si le film préserve les complexités et la vision morale du roman original.

The Niagara Peninsula has long enjoyed great visibility as a tourist destination. From the earliest days of settlement, visitors have made their way to Niagara to experience the sublimity of the cataract at Niagara Falls, a cross-border phenomenon of transcendent beauty and power. In more recent times, the draw of the falls themselves has been enhanced by a range of other pleasures now available within the region, from the garish new Las Vegas-style casino through an ever-expanding cultural repertoire that includes the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, countless regional wineries, fine restaurants, and upscale retail sites; together, these comprise a burgeoning level of commercial enterprise that threatens to overwhelm a landscape once renowned for its tender-fruit agriculture.

Given its iconic status and familiarity to tourists, then, it is not surprising that Niagara has at times been used as a setting for fiction of various kinds, from Jane Urquhart's The Whirlpool (1997) and Elizabeth McCracken's Niagara Falls All Over Again (2001), to the newly released The Falls: A Novel, by Joyce Carol Oates (2004). Niagara has also been used from time to time as a setting for detective stories, which again is unsurprising given the fact that detective fiction is on the whole remarkably place-specific. James Lee Burke's New Orleans, L.R. Wright's sechelt, British Columbia, Janet Evanovich's Trenton, New Jersey, Peter Robinson's Yorkshire, and Ian Rankin's Edinburgh come to mind; it is a well-known fact that consumers of the detective genre frequently "shop by location," seeking crime, mystery, or detective fiction that features the places they know or intend to visit.1

Few writers of popular detective narratives, though, have seriously engaged with the Niagara region as a social or historical nexus that amounts to more than a physical setting dominated by the beauty and power of the falls themselves. Kerry Schooley (writing as "John Swan") sets his eponymous John Swan stories in Hamilton, Ontario, and private investigator Swan makes a number of forays into the Niagara Peninsula (The Rouge Murders, 1996); however, Niagara as place and space is a mere footnote, a sidebar in effect, given the "steeltown noir" ambience that is Schooley's real focus. …

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