Whodunit? Otto Penzler, no doubt

Los Angeles Times

NEW YORK — For someone steeped in murder, grift and shady characters, Otto Penzler is remarkably cheerful.

“I’m the happiest person you know. I am an optimist, I’m happy, I love life, I love friends, I love my job,” he says in his book-lined basement office, settling into a red wing chair. “Every day I wake up and I wish I could believe in God, because I want to thank somebody for my wife and for my life. So reading a story or a book isn’t going to bring me down.”

Which is good, because Penzler reads a lot. He’s a master of the popular mystery anthology: This year alone, he’s edited or co-edited seven collections, totaling close to 4,000 pages, including this fall’s “The Best American Noir of the Century” (with stories by Jim Thompson and Cornell Woolrich) and “The Lineup: The World’s Greatest Crime Writers Tell the Inside Story of Their Greatest Detectives” (featuring Robert Crais, Laura Lippman and Lee Child, among others). The new anthology “Christmas at the Mysterious Bookshop” compiles festively criminal stories by Lawrence Block, Ed McBain, Mary Higgins Clark, Donald E. Westlake and more, all written at Penzler’s request.

For close to four decades, Penzler has played the role of anthologist, curator, publisher, agent, bookseller and all-around mystery fiction booster with unflagging energy and enthusiasm. “He’s made a feast for himself in the whole mystery field; he’s omnivorously knowledgeable,” says James Ellroy. “He gave me my start in hardcover book publishing, and for that I’m eternally grateful.”


Penzler’s Mysterious Bookshop — opened in 1979 in Midtown Manhattan, transplanted to TriBeCa in 2004 — has been a North Star for mystery readers and writers.

“We would go to dinner, after I signed several hundred copies of a new title for Otto’s book club, relax and talk, Otto proper or whimsical,” Elmore Leonard says of his old friend via e-mail. “He was the reason I looked forward to signing in New York.”

Penzler, who was born in the Bronx in 1942, went to the University of Michigan, where he studied literature — he liked poetry, hated James Joyce — before returning to New York. Married at 21 to his first wife, who was 15 years his senior, he worked his way up from copyboy to sportswriter at the New York Daily News, then moved to ABC Sports to do publicity. “It was kind of embarrassing,” he says. “I came home with $7,000. Even in the 1960s, this was no money.”

Penzler began collecting — and trading in — rare books. He’d skip meals to have $5 a week to spend on his collecting — not nearly enough for the classics, but enough for the mysteries he’d begun reading after college. “I wanted to read something that was really light and not challenging, and soon found that there was serious literature being written by mystery writers, by crime writers. And it really changed my attitude about mysteries in general.”

Penzler’s affections put him at the forefront of a cultural shift in which mysteries, long considered throw-away pulp fiction, would slowly move into the mainstream. Today, mysteries are taken seriously — not just as commercially successful books but also as mainstream entertainment and high art. Dashiell Hammett’s “The Maltese Falcon” is on the reading list of the National Endowment for the Arts’ Big Read project, for example, while Raymond Chandler’s writing has been reissued by the Library of America.

It’s safe to say that the shift wouldn’t have happened in quite the same way without Penzler and his many literary ventures.

“His contribution to the field in general has been genuine and large,” says Barry Gifford, the San Francisco-based author of “Wild at Heart” and the founder of Black Lizard Press, famous for reissuing the works of Jim Thompson. “He’s done certainly a yeoman’s job.”

For four years, Penzler worked with co-editor Chris Steinbrunner putting together “The Encyclopedia of Mystery and Detection,” published in 1976. It was the first book to create a complete catalog of the mystery genre, and it won Penzler his first Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America — this year, “The Lineup” brought him another.


Then, in 1975, Penzler founded the Mysterious Press, which became an imprint of Warner Books, then Hachette and, this year, Grove/Atlantic. At first, it was a one-man operation. “I edited, I hired the typesetter, I did the proofreading, negotiated the contract and wrote the flap copy and hired the artist and bought the paper — you know, I did everything,” he says.

Things changed after he published a collection of short stories by “Psycho” author Robert Bloch, and the orders came pouring in. “I’m sitting there typing invoices as fast as I can, wrapping books, taking them to the post office. I said, ‘I can’t do this,’” he remembers. “You can’t call secretarial help to come to your apartment in the Bronx.”

Penzler didn’t have enough money to rent a Manhattan office, but it was 1979, and he and a partner managed to buy a building from someone so eager to leave the city that the price was affordable. That year, he opened the Mysterious Bookshop at 129 W. 56th St. in Midtown, with popular books on the ground floor and a spiral staircase leading to collectibles on the second.

The stories in “Christmas at the Mysterious Bookshop” were written especially for the store, which makes an appearance — or else the holiday does — in each (as do murders, suspense and crime). Penzler gave the individual stories free to customers during the holiday season. Offering customers something special — whether it’s a store freebie, a limited edition hardcover or books signed by the author — has been essential to Penzler’s model as a publisher. In fact, they are exactly the kinds of extras that innovative new publishers are trying out to make the book, as an artifact, something buyers might value more than a tempting, and cheaper, e-book.


Those innovations have served Penzler well, but his bookstore still struggles. He created a community with the Mysterious Bookshop — first-name-basis writers Michael Connelly, Nelson DeMille, James W. Hall, Harlan Ellison and Joyce Carol Oates all attended his intimate 2004 wedding at Tavern on the Green — but the self-proclaimed optimist has one word for its future: “Doomed.” Then, he adds: “Changing times.” He’s continued to support it with profits from his other successes — his share of royalties from “Christmas at the Mysterious Bookshop” will go directly to the store.