An Interview with Otto Penzler

You may not be a fan of mystery and suspense.

Honestly, it happens. However, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, these stories collected in "dime novels" provided the same sense of adventure and escape we obtain today from plunging into Netflix or wiping out a season of some show over the frigid weekend.  Otto Penzler is the proprietor of The Mysterious Bookshop in New York City, the oldest and premiere Mystery, Suspense and Espionage store in North America. Penzler took time from his busy store and schedule to offer a glimpse into his latest anthology

How did you get started in the pursuit of mysteries and other antiquated writing?
PENZLER: As a reader, the first book I read after returning from the University of Michigan was The Complete Sherlock Holmes. I then starting collecting first editions of mystery fiction. My first professional involvement was co-writing a book called the Detectionary, which led to the Encyclopedia of Mystery & Detection, for which my co-writers and I won an Edgar in 1977.

Having assembled so many of these compendia, are there criteria you look for in the stories to include? Do you keep running lists and how many stories normally are on the list before you whittle it down?
P: The major criteria are (1) is it a good story, and (2) does it fill the subject requirement. I generally start with a list of 200-300 and add stories as I discover them; I usually read 400-500 stories to compile one of the “Big” books for Vintage.

Who are some of the writers you gravitate toward?
P: Among the long dead, I loved Doyle, Wilkie Collins, then Hammett, Chandler, Ross Macdonald, Agatha Christie, John Dickson Carr.  Among the recently dead, I loved James Crumley, Ross Thomas, Elmore Leonard, Donald Westlake, Robert B. Parker. Among the living, I adore Thomas H. Cook, Charles McCarry, Michael Connelly, Lee Child, K.C. Constantine, Dennis Lehane, the early John le Carre. So many others.

When you read a story, what hooks you into it? How do you see mysteries evolving during the 40 years you have been running your store and gathering these tales together?
P: It used to be the puzzle, then became the character, now it’s mostly the prose, though great prose without good characters and a strong story means you’re writing for THE NEW YORKER. The biggest change is that mystery writers have become more literary and literary writers often write mystery/crime/suspense stories. A good thing.

Do you think that over time we as a society like to shift our attention from following the heroes (John Wayne, for example) to the anti-heroes (Tony Soprano)?  In the older writing, could it have been some kind of adrenaline rush to read the heroic stories but secretly root for the villain?
P: There is far more moral ambivalency than there once was. It was understood that we were rooting for the good guys. Less true these days. I don’t think we root for villains, though I think we do for rogues, but that was always true.

 A lot of the fun of reading these stories is their sense of adventure. This thread of "escape" was common in late 19th/early 20th C. literature - do you still see it in writers of today?
P: Again, not as frequently as we once did. But Donald Westlake maintained that tradition. Authors who wrote about hit men in recent years (Thomas Perry with “the butcher’s boy,” Max Allan Collins with several characters, Lawrence Block with Keller) usually gave them humanity and pitted them against even worse people. “Sometimes, some people need killing.”

Finally, are you planning another compendium or two already? Could we have a hint as to what is coming next.
P: The next one, coming out in October, is THE BIG BOOK OF FEMALE DETECTIVES. I’m now reading stories for the next one, which MIGHT be titled REEL MURDERS, which will be devoted to stories that inspired movies.

Otto Penzler's latest "The Big Book of Rogues and Villains" is a fascinating collection of sordid tales of all stripes that makes a great gift for the Mystery fan or even just curious readers. These stories from Robert Louis Stevenson, Bram Stoker, Washington Irving, O.Henry and many more provide a fascinating glimpse into "common" literature at its most powerful and is the perfect place to start your interest in Mystery and the unknown.

For more information on The Mysterious Bookshop visit them online at mysteriousbookshop.com and Vintage Crime/Black Lizard is published at knopfdoubleday.com

Mik Davis is the record store manager at T-BONE's Records and Cafe and a GED instructor. At other stations of life, he has been a musician, writer and much more. However, he would much rather talk about music.

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