On the very morning that I interviewed Otto Penzler in his basement office beneath the Mysterious Bookshop in lower Manhattan, the New York Times reported on a new scientific study that tied reading books to living longer. Informed of these findings, the genial workaholic 74-year-old editor/publisher/bookseller was pleased: “Good. I was planning on living forever.”
Penzler is certainly the best test subject in the mystery and crime field for that hypothesis. For his 2015 anthology, The Big Book of Sherlock Holmes Stories (Black Lizard), he read 450 stories about the legendary sleuth in order to select the 83 most deserving of inclusion. And he was similarly diligent in making the choices for his sixth in the series, The Big Book of Jack the Ripper, which came out in October, also from Vintage Crime’s Black Lizard imprint.
The Ripper title breaks new ground for the series: in addition to 41 fictional entries, including short stories and novels from unexpected contributors such as Isak Dinesen, Penzler has provided primary nonfiction sources on the notorious crimes—for instance contemporaneous witness statements and autopsy reports. He also, for the first time, commissioned original tales from talented contemporary authors including Jeffery Deaver, Lyndsay Faye, Anne Perry, and Daniel Stashower. The result is a creative exploration of the impact that the unsolved Whitechapel murders have had on society and on popular culture in the 128 years since they were committed, an impact that more than justifies the publication of another book on the killer.
Penzler’s editor, Edward Kastenmeier, is unstinting in his praise for Penzler. “His knowledge of the genre is unrivaled, his editorial acumen is impressive, and his familiarity with the literary community is hard to beat.” Kastenmeier believes that the series has been so successful because “it scratches a completist itch many of us share.” He adds: “Read one of these books and you know you will have read all the best stories the subject has to offer. There is also the satisfaction of sitting down with a huge treasure trove of classic stories and rediscovered gems. Each of these topics has an enthusiastic fan base. We try to target each anthology’s niche audience and build out from there. If you find the devoted readers, others will follow. The Big Books also make great gifts, and so we find the fall is a good time to publish, setting us up for the holidays.”
Penzler grew up in the South Bronx in the 1950s, a “very poor, but not dangerous” neighborhood at the time. At the age of 10, his reading, in his elementary school library, of the classic Conan Doyle Holmes story “The Red-Headed League” was interrupted by the school bell. Penzler returned to finish the tale the next day, but despite his fascination with Jabez Wilson’s odd account of being paid to copy the entire Encyclopedia Britannica by hand, Penzler didn’t catch the bug just then, and he read mostly nonfiction until college. He attended the University of Michigan, where, as an English major, he read James Joyce and the Russians—a lot of “stuff that hurt my head,” he says.
When he returned to New York City after graduation, Penzler wanted a literary change of pace, something easier and more fun. So he dipped into The Complete Sherlock Holmes and fell in love with mystery fiction. He went on to read the classic golden age authors—John Dickson Carr, Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, Rex Stout—before encountering Raymond Chandler, and discovering that mystery fiction could also be literature.
Having failed to realize his twin dreams of being a Major League baseball player and the author of the great American novel, Penzler downsized and merged his ambitions, working as a sportswriter for the New York Daily News and then as a publicist for ABC Sports.
Penzler also began collecting first editions after college, but on a salary of $42 per week, his goal of having first editions of all great literature was not realistic. But with first editions of Chandler and Hammett available on Manhattan’s old Fourth Avenue Booksellers’ Row for 50¢ each, collecting mystery classics was a real possibility.
As he began building his personal collection, Penzler also took steps to realize another dream. Feeling that gifted genre authors were not getting the respect that they deserved, he wanted to start his own company, based in his small Bronx apartment, that would publish, for the first time, limited signed editions of mystery books. After a lunch with Joan Kahn of Harper’s Novel of Suspense series, he asked her, “How hard could it be?” He soon learned how hard it could be, doing everything for the Mysterious Press himself, in an era before easy access to Xerox machines, let alone word processing and email.
In 1976, the Mysterious Press made its debut with Peter Todd’s collection of parodies, The Adventures of Herlock Sholmes, in a limited edition of 1,250 copies. The press’s stable of authors expanded to include Robert L. Fish and Robert Bloch, but its big break came with the 1977 publication of Lew Archer—Private Investigator, the first complete collection of Ross Macdonald’s short stories, with a special introduction written by the author. Penzler sent out pamphlets including that introduction, and the New York Times Book Review covered the title on the front page, including the entire intro.
Penzler became recognized as an expert in the mystery field after his friend Chris Steinbrunner, whom he met at a Baker Street Irregulars banquet, asked him to collaborate on what would become The Encyclopedia of Mystery and Detection (McGraw-Hill, 1976), which won an Edgar in 1977 for Best Critical/Biographical Work. Soon after the encyclopedia was published, Penzler bought a building on West 56th Street in Manhattan as a home for the press and the specialty bookstore that now reside on Warren Street.
The Mysterious Bookshop survived some rocky early years by virtue of a stable of “very good” customers, collectors whose mentality Penzler shared. Business took off in the mid-1980s, when great writers, including Dick Francis, Sue Grafton, Walter Mosley, and Robert B. Parker, began signing books for Penzler to sell.
Penzler himself once tried his hand at a suspense short story, but realized that though he could write a decent sentence, he was better suited for the sort of nonfiction essays that precede each of his Big Book entries. His contributions to The Big Book of Jack the Ripper are typically concise and insightful, for both neophytes and experts.
When asked what has surprised him the most in his decades wearing every conceivable hat in the publishing industry, Penzler answered that it was the kindness of the mystery writers he’d encountered. His early advocacy of writers whom he believes deserve a wide readership has been paid back to him.
Lee Child is one of many who have gone out of their way to help Penzler and the bookstore. “It’s much less a case of me being generous than what goes around comes around,” Child says. “Otto was a passionate supporter of mine back at the beginning, so it’s a pleasure and a privilege to be able to return his many kindnesses. Historically, this was the role of independent genre bookstores—they broke us out, and we remember that.” Child manifested that gratitude in authorizing the Mysterious Bookshop to publish 100 signed and numbered limited editions of all his Jack Reacher novels, and by writing a new introductory essay for each.
Penzler’s Big Book series belies what had been the accepted wisdom: that short story collections and anthologies don’t sell. He currently edits six to eight such volumes each year, adding more to his incredible total of stories read and, perhaps, prolonging his life.
Lenny Picker is a freelance writer in New York City.