In an industry that thrives on the new, these mystery publishers are earning critical acclaim by reviving old favorites.
British Library Crime Classics
In 2013, the British Library recruited novelist and crime fiction historian Martin Edwards (see “Wrinkles in Crime,”) to consult on an exhibition titled Murder in the Library: An A–Z of Crime Fiction. The institution’s publishing arm had begun releasing the occasional genre reissue, and Edwards suggested a full series of reprints. British Library Crime Classics launched in the U.K. in 2014, and the following year, Poisoned Pen Press brought the line to the U.S.
To date, there are nearly 100 books in the series, several of which have received starred reviews from PW: 1933’s Death in Fancy Dress by Anthony Gilbert—a pseudonym of Lucy Malleson—“neatly combines Wodehousian humor with a fair play puzzle,” while in 1951’s Death Has Deep Roots, Michael Gilbert “does a masterly job of blending whodunit, courtroom drama, and thriller.”
British Library publisher John Lee says he and Edwards select books based on quality and “to provide a balanced series representing different decades, story types, and authors.” Forthcoming releases include the 1944 locked-room mystery Till Death Do Us Part by John Dickson Carr (Aug.); 1962’s Due to a Death, a work of suspense by Mary Kelly (May); and the anthology Guilty Creatures (June), a golden age showcase of mysteries involving animals.
American Mystery Classics
Penzler Publishers launched American Mystery Classics in 2018 because “it seemed a natural extension of the 2,000 or so books I publish as e-books,” Otto Penzler, the press’s founder, says. “I’ve always preferred physical books, and thought real aficionados would appreciate them, as they were all out-of-print, except electronically.” The books—almost 50 to date—receive simultaneous hardcover and trade paperback releases; libraries buy most of the former, though at Penzler’s Manhattan store, the Mysterious Bookshop, “they sell about the same as the trade paperbacks.”
In addition to works by familiar names such as Ellery Queen and Erle Stanley Gardner, the list includes previously forgotten titles such as Joel Townsley Rogers’s mind-bending The Red Right Hand, first published in 1945, which PW’s starred review called a “virtuoso mix of terror and fair play.” Clayton Rawson’s 1938 Death from a Top Hat is “one of the all-time greatest impossible murder mysteries,” according to PW’s starred review. This season’s releases include Cat’s Paw by Roger Scarlett, a pseudonym for two women whom Penzler believes “were the first same-sex couple to write mysteries.”
Library of Congress Crime Classics
After noting the success of the British Library classics series, Barbara Peters, cofounder of Poisoned Pen, asked Leslie Klinger, an Edgar winner for 2019’s Classic American Crime Fiction of the 1920s, whether he’d be interested in editing a similar series for American mysteries. Klinger and a reader committee from the Library of Congress began vetting titles for inclusion; since 2020 there have been 10 reissues, beginning with Anna Katharine Green’s That Affair Next Door, first published in 1897 and a “cleverly plotted mystery,” PW’s starred review said, that introduces amateur sleuth Amelia Butterworth—30 years before Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple.
Each LoC Crime Classic, says Klinger, whose first Edgar was for 2005’s The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Short Stories, includes 30–50 annotations for modern readers. In the forthcoming reissue of Ed Lacy’s 1958 Edgar winner, Room to Swing (Oct.), for instance, a character breaks into an apartment and remarks on the absence of a “Holmes alarm.” A note explains that Edwin Holmes’s “Holmes Burglar Alarm Telegraph” dominated the industry for decades, and “Holmes alarm” became a generic term for a burglar alarm system.
Spring titles include 1932’s The Conjure-Man Dies (Apr.) by Rudolph Fisher, a physician and a key writer of the Harlem Renaissance. June sees the release of a 1910 short fiction collection, Average Jones by Samuel Hopkins Adams, who is best known as a muckraking colleague of Lincoln Steffens and Theodore Dreiser. Klinger says his biggest editorial challenge is finding critical material to contextualize a given book. “That’s important to me,” he says, “because I want readers to understand not only what we think of them today, but what they were thought of at the time that they were published.”
Lenny Picker is a freelance writer and PW reviewer.