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Then along came Howard Engel, whose small-town Ontario private investigator, Benny Cooperman, forever altered the landscape of Canada's mystery fiction. Not only did he solve his case, in Engel's 1980 book The Suicide Murders, but his success would be parlayed into a Cooperman industry, spawning 11 books and the distinction of being the country's first truly Canadian detective hero. Engel's latest, Memory Book, was published in January -- despite the author suffering a stroke in 2002 that left him with an unusual neurological condition rendering him unable to read.

That's not to say that Canadians weren't writing mysteries. American-Canadian Kenneth Millar created hard-boiled California private investigator Lew Archer in 1949 under the pseudonym Ross Macdonald; his Canadian wife, Margaret Millar, was also a mystery novelist. Hugh Garner made Toronto the scene of the crime in his trio of Inspector McDumont novels in the seventies. There were other sporadic attempts at creating detective series, but it wasn't until Cooperman got on the case that the idea of Canadians writing credible mysteries and crime thrillers no longer seemed like a problem. And now, with Cooperman celebrating his silver anniversary, Canadian mystery fiction is perhaps entering a golden age.

Publishers certainly seem willing to bankroll the form like never before. This season, every major house is releasing a hardcover mystery book by a Canadian author. Penguin Canada has already produced Engel's Memory Book, but also Brad Smith's Busted Flush to considerable acclaim. Meanwhile, HarperCollins Canada has Andrew Pyper's thriller The Wildfire Season coming this month and Jon Evans's Blood Price in July. Random House of Canada has the third John Cardinal instalment from Giles Blunt, Blackfly Season, due out later this month. And McClelland & Stewart recently put out the 15th Inspector Banks book by U.K.-born Canadian Peter Robinson -- the country's bestselling mystery novelist. M&S is also heavily promoting newbie writer Ilona Van Mil, a Dutch-Canadian expat living in Britain whose first book, Sugarmilk Falls, is set in Northern Ontario sugar-bush country.

And those are just the new releases. Fans of domestic mystery fiction eagerly await books by the likes of Eric Wright, Gail Bowen, Caroline Roe, Laurence Gough, Maureen Jennings and Rosemary Aubert.

"There's been a lot of growth if you track it over the last five years -- there have been ups and downs, but it's been increasing overall." says Barbara Fradkin, the Ottawa-based creator of the Inspector Green mystery series and the president of the authors' association Crime Writers of Canada.

She notes that 40 per cent more mystery novels were published this year than the year before, and there has been a 50-per-cent increase in juvenile mysteries. And the number of nominations for the Arthur Ellis Awards, the CWC's annual mystery prize, has spiked dramatically. This year 67 novels were submitted to the fiction category, 43 for best novel, and 24 for debut works.

"That's phenomenal, to have 24 new [mystery]novels being picked up by publishers," says Fradkin.

She isn't sure if the figure reflects an increase in the popularity of mystery fiction or an increase in the popularity of fiction in general. She does, however, think Canadian publishers, particularly smaller houses such as Napoleon Publishing with its RendezVous Crime imprint and The Dundurn Group and its Castle Street Mysteries imprint, recognized a gap in the market and sought to fill it.

"If you look back 10 years ago, it would be really hard to name more than a handful of Canadian mystery writers. Now there are so many, even though not all of them are stars, but they deserve to be," says Barry Jowett, the editorial director at The Dundurn Group, who publishes favourite Eric Wright, the creator of the internationally renowned prize-winning Charlie Salter series, and relative newcomer Sylvia Warsh, whose book Find Me Again won a 2004 Edgar Award.

"We get more manuscripts that we want to publish than we can actually publish," Jowett says. "I don't think a lot of people are aware of how good some of these mystery writers are. I don't know if people may dismiss it as genre fiction, but we have writers such as Alex Brett and Jim Hawkins, who if people who don't normally read mysteries read them, they'd probably become regular readers."

And mystery novels also tend to be good bets at the bookstore. While "literary fiction" is usually published in a hardcover format first, mysteries are often published in trade paperback, a substantially cheaper format, meaning readers will spring for a new mystery novel over the latest work of fiction -- particularly if the book is part of a series, such as Inspector Banks, where the reader knows what to expect.

"If we're having a tough time economically, $10 is a reasonably inexpensive form of entertainment while people might not want to buy a hardcover," says Marian Misters, co-owner of The Sleuth of Baker Street, Toronto's pre-eminent bookstore for mystery fiction. "It's the best of times. The mystery genre is so exposed right now, people are willing to publish them and people are willing to read them."