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 into 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 the 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.
The Mysterious Bookshop itself. 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. (It was first located on 56th Street in Manhattan, in a building Penzler owned because it was cheaper to buy—New York was different back then.)
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. 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.