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Larry Orenstein, a copy editor at The Globe and Mail for more than 35 years, was a man married to the published word. He was a voracious reader, a talented writer and a skilful editor, whose often cantankerous behaviour masked a gentle man and superior wordsmith trusted by The Globe’s best columnists, correspondents and editors.

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Larry Orenstein.Courtesy of the Family

Mr. Orenstein died on Dec. 12 of complications from sepsis. He was 72.

Larry was born in Toronto on Jan. 25, 1949, to Saul and Betty Orenstein. Belonging to a poor branch of a prominent Jewish family, he found comfort in books, which never let him down.

“They are cheaper and safer than travel,” he would often say, preferring to satisfy his thirst for knowledge via printed pages detailing other writers’ experiences rather than pursue his own.

“That’s how I missed the Sixties,” he once wrote. “I read right through them.”

Mr. Orenstein graduated in 1973 from York University in Toronto with a degree in Asian Studies, a subject he chose simply because he knew nothing about it.

After half-hearted attempts to sell life insurance and to keep the financial books for a relative, he jumped at the chance to study journalism at Ryerson Polytechnical Institute (now Ryerson University), where he shone and became an associate editor and writer for The Ryerson Magazine, published six times a year by the Journalism department at the time.

He and a handful of his student colleagues also landed jobs as interns at the Toronto Star, only to have the Star cut back its internship program that year, leaving the students in the lurch. Never one to take such treatment lightly, Mr. Orenstein and his fellow interns launched a lawsuit against the Star, won and pocketed a small but meaningful cash settlement.

Mr. Orenstein found work at the Canadian Jewish News, a weekly publication, before being hired by The Globe and Mail Sports department as a copy editor. (Mr. Orenstein hated sports and played none, but didn’t tell this to the interviewer.)

No matter, it seems; he did well as a copy editor there, so much so that when Geoffrey Stevens became Sports editor he recognized the man’s talent. “He was the best, most careful editor in Sports. When I become managing editor, in 1983, I moved him from Sports to the main news desk where his skills were badly needed.”

He would subsequently be an editor in the Foreign and Comment departments as well.

Mr. Orenstein showed no interest in seeking to run any of these news areas as a department editor, a member of management.

“Managing isn’t writing or editing,” he said years ago. He only cared about the words.

Neither did the man want any part of the union to which most Globe reporters and copy editors belonged. He fought to be allowed to withhold the union dues that were being deducted from his paycheque. And lost. But he never became a union member and vowed he would go to work as usual even if there was a strike.

“I don’t like other people telling me what to do,” he once explained, saying he accepted it when it came from the person who pays him.

Throughout his years at The Globe, Mr. Orenstein would pen the occasional article or review for the paper, send letters to the editor of the New York Times; even write a handful of mystery stories he submitted to magazines.

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Larry Orenstein, Globe and Mail editor, on March 26, 2001.Tibor Kolley/The Globe and Mail

His first success in that regard came in 1986 when he submitted a story titled Body in the Bathtub to the Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. It was rejected.

Disappointed, but undaunted, Mr. Orenstein changed the title to Murder By the Tubful and the author’s name to Sara Plews, a made-up nom de plume. He reasoned that since women were experiencing several advances that year, a female author might stand a better chance of being accepted. He was right.

He sent the delightful piece to a rival publication, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, and it was accepted, even made the cover art. The editors didn’t change a word, nor any of the punctuation. It went on to be published in German in an anthology of mystery writing.

The 1,400-word story shows Mr. Orenstein’s talent at combining the macabre with humour, much as he did in life. The dialogue is what delivers, bringing to mind Canadian humorist Stephen Leacock (whom Mr. Orenstein adored) and the very British P.G. Wodehouse (whom Mr. Orenstein loathed because of the man’s radio broadcasts from Berlin during the Second World War.)

Quirky humour is characteristic of the Orenstein “oeuvre.” It could be found even in the choice of subjects on which he wrote occasional feature pieces: phobias (from several of which Mr. Orenstein suffered); the Gerber baby at 60 (he tracked her down); the odd ways in which some people have died. A letter of his published in The New York Times concerned the books with which he wanted to be buried.

But it was Nazis and mysteries that most captivated him.

He was obsessed with Nazis because of their power of evil and the necessity of ferreting them out – he had more than 168 feet of books on Nazis, stacked two-deep, on shelves in his living room.

His fixation with mystery writing stemmed from its power of entertainment and he possessed more than a thousand such books, almost all in hardcover; most of them first editions. His favourite mystery writers were Michael Connelly and Robert B. Parker (in that order), though Mr. Orenstein once wrote that The Maltese Falcon, by Dashiell Hammett, was “the best book ever written.”

“Do you know where your copy is?” he challenged readers. Mr. Orenstein did – it was on the middle shelf of his wall of mystery books, facing out.

Mr. Orenstein never won any major award for his work (editors tend not to, as it is the writers and artists who usually are honoured) but many of his peers feel he should have. The care he took with every writer’s work invariably enhanced it.

“Larry was a gem,” former Globe columnist Rick Salutin said.

Mr. Orenstein leaves his real-life partner in marriage, Neita Israelite, and nephews, Aron and Ben Israelite.

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