How the Owner of the Greatest Mystery Bookstore Pulled the Genre Out of the Muck
“This is literature. It’s not just puzzles, it’s not just telling a nice story.”
The mystery genre is in a boom. Eight of the top 10 fiction books on the New York Times bestseller list are either straight-ahead mysteries—detective stories, murder mysteries, propulsive crime novels—or thrillers heavily indebted to or intertwined with the mystery genre. Prestige TV shows are heavily tilted in favor of mysteries; there are two currently-running Sherlock Holmes adaptations, but Top of the Lake, How to Get Away With Murder, Mr. Robot, The OA, Pretty Little Liars, Big Little Lies, Broadchurch, True Detective, and about a billion others are littering our screens, not to mention the true crime trend.
Mysteries have always been around and always been popular, but they haven’t always been respected. Otto Penzler has had a significant hand in that transformation. He’s probably the most important figure in the history of mystery fiction who’s never written a mystery story.
You get to Otto Penzler’s New York office through a door in the Mysterious Bookshop, the world’s oldest and biggest bookstore focusing on mystery, crime fiction, espionage, and thrillers. The door is roped off with a big X made of yellow police tape reading CRIME SCENE DO NOT CROSS. Down a flight of stairs, his office is a low-ceilinged basement cube with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves on all four sides, stocked with anthologies and first editions as well as a random sampling of mass-market hardcovers and paperbacks. If his office was a store by itself, it would be the second-best mystery bookstore in the world.
Penzler is the owner of the Mysterious Bookshop (founded 1979) as well as The Mysterious Press, a publishing imprint he founded in 1975, and mysteriouspress.com, his ebook publisher. He has published most of the greats of mystery and crime fiction: Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, James Ellroy, Ross Thomas, Patricia Highsmith, Ross Macdonald, Ed McBain. Any of the major authors he hasn’t published are probably at least good friends of his. (In conversation, Robert B. Parker is “Bob” and Lawrence Block is “Larry.”) He has a trim white beard and a shock of white hair, and speaks with the confidence and enthusiasm of someone who works entirely too many hours for his age at a job he wouldn’t trade. He is not the least bit shy about criticizing authors he thinks are bad; he referred to both Thomas Pynchon and Isabel Allende as “dreadful!” in our conversation. “Otto is gentlemanly, courtly, and unfailingly gracious—but, when necessary, he can be strongly assertive,” writes author Joyce Carol Oates in an email. “I do have a story or two about Otto but don’t think it would be discreet to tell them….”
The Mysterious Bookshop itself was first located on 56th Street in Manhattan, in a building Penzler owned because it was cheaper to buy. His half of the building’s cost, in 1978, was $2,000. “It was a different New York then,” says Penzler. Today the store is down in Tribeca, on a block that doesn’t suggest anything important in the literary world. It’s next to a Le Pain Quotidien and a few doors down from a 7-Eleven.
Inside, every square inch of walls leading up to what must be 20-foot ceilings are packed with any book in which someone violently dies. There is an entire section for Sherlock Holmes books, including the many spinoffs written by dozens of authors. (The copyright on the character expired in 2014, meaning anyone can now write stories involving the characters created by Arthur Conan Doyle without paying a fee.) There are copies of long-defunct detective magazines like Black Mask. There is an entire section for what Penzler calls bibliomysteries—mystery books involving mysterious books. Murdered librarians, valuable manuscripts, that kind of thing.
The bookstore is not twee. There are no props, aside from the caution tape; no pranks, no cute designs or artworks. This is a temple to the noble mystery, a place where people who can name all of Donald E. Westlake’s pseudonyms talk about one of the most enduring genres in the history of literature. For a long time, “enduring” was about as nice as critics wanted to be to the mystery genre. Penzler’s life goal has been to change that.
Otto Penzler was born in Germany to a German-American mother and a German father. When his father passed away, when Otto was only five years old, he and his mother moved to the Bronx. His first mystery, as was the case for many mystery fans, was a Sherlock Holmes story. His was “The Red-Headed League.” (A man with flaming red hair comes to see Holmes. He says that he was employed for a week or so by something called “The Red-Headed League,” in which he was paid suspiciously well to sit in an office and copy the encyclopedia. One day, he goes to work, and finds that the office is closed and nobody has any idea what the Red-Headed League is, was, or does.)
But Penzler set mysteries aside, went to the University of Michigan, and studied English literature. “I was reading what you read when you were an English major. Russian novelists and James Joyce and poetry of all sorts, including difficult people like Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot,” he says. Having played baseball and handball through high school and college, when Penzler came back to New York, he started writing for local newspapers about sports, especially boxing. “I wanted to keep reading, but I didn’t want to hurt my head anymore,” he says. “So I thought mysteries, I’ll read some mysteries.”
Penzler started working his way through the genre from essentially its modern start: Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, mannered British writers like that. “And then I discovered Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett,” he says. “And I suddenly realized, this is literature. It’s not just puzzles, it’s not just telling a nice story. This is every bit as serious as Fitzgerald and Hemingway and the other great 20th-century writers.”
By the 1960s, when Penzler started getting heavily into mysteries, the genre was in a funk. Starting in the 1910s and 1920s, pulp magazines exploded in popularity. The pulps—so named because their paper was made of cheap, low-quality wood pulp—pumped out, with little regard for quality, thousands of issues. Many, like Dime Detective, True Detective, Complete Detective, and dozens more, focused on private eye and crime fiction. “And look, 90 percent of it was crap, there’s no getting around it,” says Penzler. “They were writing as fast as they could for a penny a word. And it gave a bad name to pulp fiction.”
The stories were lurid, sensational, often poorly written. To be sure, those magazines sometimes published great authors, but it seems as if that was by accident. Mystery writers at that time wrote hundreds, sometimes thousands, of stories, basically anything they could do to make a dollar. Some of my own favorite writers, Donald E. Westlake and Lawrence Block, have each written several hundred books under several different names, ranging from their best-known mysteries to weird sci-fi one-offs and a pretty substantial catalog of soft-core porn.
Partly because mystery work was seen for so long as bottom-of-the-barrel entertainment, there’s been a tendency for writers to be less precious about their work; you rarely see a mystery author slave for a decade on a single novel. “One of the things I really like about mystery writers is they don’t mind talking about money,” says Thomas H. Cook, one of Penzler’s favorite authors (and also the best man at Penzler’s wedding). “It’s okay to make a good living, it’s not a sign that you’ve betrayed all of God’s many gifts if you try to actually make a dollar doing this.”
And then 1922 came around. Stephen King’s theory, which Penzler quite likes, is that the publication of Joyce’s Ulysses and Eliot’s The Wasteland sparked a whole new separation of highbrow and lowbrow fiction. “Both are unreadable and incomprehensible,” says Penzler. “So now critics had a role to play; they could tell you what this book was all about, they could explain it.”
Chandler, Hammett, and Cain all published their best novels in the 1930s, but critics ignored them; they were beach novels, unserious novels, guilty pleasures. They weren’t taught in literature classes. That had serious effects on the marketing of the books that would come in the following decades: mystery books from as late as the 1970s are complete garbage as physical objects. Printed on the cheapest, lousiest paper; bound with the worst glue; cover art commissioned by someone’s nephew at best. They were seen as disposable.
In the 1970s, Penzler was sort of a mystery groupie. He hung out at the giant clump of bookstores that made up New York’s 4th Avenue “Book Row.” (Those bookstores, apart from The Strand, are all gone now.) He became known in the community as someone with a real passion for this stuff, and eventually was asked to help write The Encyclopedia of Mystery and Detection, a huge reference book for the history of crime fiction up to that point. The book did well and got Penzler even further into the publishing world, and in 1975 founded The Mysterious Press, a publishing house dedicated to proving that mysteries can be and should be considered as important as any literary fiction.
The Mysterious Press published mysteries in higher-quality packaging than they’d ever seen before. Penzler used expensive acid-free paper, then a new creation, to ensure the longevity of his books. Before acid-free paper, the natural acids in the wood pulp would naturally begin to eat away at the paper after time; the cheap pulp novels would literally self-destruct. Penzler used a more expensive woven pattern in his paper, which he says gives it a superior look and feel, and decided to sew his bindings rather than glue them. He hired top artists to create the covers for his books.
None of this was totally unheard of in publishing in the late 1970s, but it was completely new for what until then had been considered toilet literature. Penzler simply treated his books the way he thought they should be treated: he did limited editions, signed copies, slip covers, the whole thing. “It has been a professional goal for 40 years to elevate this genre,” he says.
And then around 1980 things started changing. Mystery and crime fiction had, until then, had a firm gender divide. There were male writers writing for men, like Robert Ludlum, John D. MacDonald, and Ed McBain, and female writers writing for women, like Ellis Peters and Charlotte MacLeod. The male writers, following Chandler’s lead, wrote about tough, anachronistic men, and sexy women with little to differentiate them. The female writers were in the vein of Agatha Christie, writing mannered mysteries largely set in small towns and communities.
Then things started overlapping. Sue Grafton and Sara Paretsky wrote hard-boiled, tough mysteries featuring female protagonists. Robert B. Parker’s Spenser series, probably the most popular private-eye series of the 1980s and 1990s, featured a tough male detective with a vitally important sensitive side. At least as important was Spenser’s significant other, a complex and independent Cambridge psychiatrist named Susan Silverman.
The new shades of mysteries meant that women, long underserved in the genre, started flocking to it. Today many of the most successful and acclaimed mystery writers, from Tana French to Gillian Flynn to Patricia Highsmith to Paula Hawkins, are women.
Once that change began and mysteries started dominating the bestseller lists, literary critics and authors seemed to feel free to embrace what had always been popular and entertaining. In the past 10 years, there’s been an influx of literary fiction authors, like Michael Chabon, Isabel Allende, and Thomas Pynchon, trying their hand at mysteries. (Of Pynchon’s surf-drug noir Inherent Vice, Penzler says: “It’s almost unreadable. But I always found him unreadable, so I wasn’t surprised. And at least he’s trying.”)
How much effect Penzler had on the genre, and how much of its change over the decades simply ran parallel with his work, is hard to tell. “Otto has been a beacon of encouragement and enthusiasm for countless writers,” says Joyce Carol Oates, who contributed a short mystery to Mysterious Press’s bibliomystery series. “It is an honor to be included in his anthologies and to appear at the Mysterious Bookshop. His presence has become legendary.”
And as the mystery genre continues to expand and gain new readers and viewers, everyone from Otto to academics to authors themselves, are thrilled, and a little proud. What makes mysteries good, and endlessly appealing, can’t die the way westerns did.
“Most people tend to be conservative,” he said. “I’m not talking about politics now, I’m talking about having a social structure that they understand and fit into and are comfortable with. And a mystery novel, there’s a social fabric, whether it’s a village, a group of friends, employees of a hotel, whatever it is, there’s a community of some size, and a murder—other crimes too, but usually a murder—rips that social fabric. And people like to see it be put back together, be mended.” That impulse isn’t going anywhere.
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