Thursday, June 30, 2011


The Mighty Greenback

Well, we're finally settled in at the cottage. We were late getting here, what with one thing and another: Bloody Words, a couple of book launches and a visit with

grandchildren in California. But I'm here now and although I brought a fully-loaded Kindle as well as a big bag of books from those and other launches, I find myself fingering, sniffing, reading . . . Greenbacks. Now these aren't the American dollars usually associated with that word. The ones I'm talking about are the old Penguin Crime Classics. You know the ones I mean. They're plain and green with a band of white across the middle.

Here's what Penguin Books has to say about them: The first ten Penguin paperbacks were published in July 1935, including the first two Penguin Crime titles: The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club by Dorothy L Sayers and The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie. In those days, all Penguin titles were given a stylish but uniform cover look which was colour coded: orange for fiction, blue for biography, and of course the famous green livery for ‘Mystery and Crime’.

I first started reading greenbacks when I was a child. My mother had shelves of them, both at our home in Toronto and at the old summer cottage on Lake Opinicon. I inherited the ones from Lawrence Park but the summer greenbacks are still lined up
at the old family cottage, owned now by my sister. They're a little moldy, damp and dog-eared from too much reading by too many generations, but they're still there. And whenever I paddle down from the other end of the lake, I end up borrowing one or two of them. It might be one I've read half a dozen times before but I can't resist delving into again. They smell of mildew and mouse and some of the pages are as brown as used coffee filters.

It might be a Michael Innes or a Gladys Mitchell or a Patricia Wentworth. I love those old mysteries with their long descriptive passages and witty conversations. The characters speak in fully formed and grammatically correct sentences and they don't interrupt one another. The clues are cleverly disguised and the detectives are often foppish pedants who can't resist gathering all the suspects together in one room so he (and it was almost always a he) can show the upper classes how clever he's been. You couldn't possibly sell a manuscript like that today. They're far too plot-driven. The characters are stereotypes. The murder methods are contrived.

But I love them. For me they bring back those summer evenings of my childhood when I read them by the light of a coal oil lamp and the whip-poor-wills sang in the distance.

I like my new Kindle and I hope it will serve me well on trips to places where English books aren't readily available. But I never expect to feel the same fondness or nostalgia for it as I do for these old greenbacks.

Sue Pike has published a couple of dozen stories and won several awards including an Arthur Ellis Award for Best Short Crime Story. Her latest, Where the Snow Lay Dinted appeared in the January issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.

Sue and her husband and an opinionated Australian Shepherd named Cooper spend the winter months in Ottawa and the rest of the time at a mysterious cottage on the Rideau Lakes.

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