IF THERE'S SOME STAR around which the mystery world orbits, it might well be Otto Penzler, who is widely considered one of the world’s foremost authorities on the genre. A book publisher, Penzler founded The Mysterious Press and still publishes both original books and classic crime novels in partnership with publishing companies on both sides of the Atlantic. A magazine publisher and editor, he headed up The Armchair Detective for 17 years. A bookstore owner, his Mysterious Bookshop in New York City remains the oldest and largest of its kind in the world. He’s won two Edgar Awards, the Ellery Queen Award, and The Raven, among other honors. And among the more than 50 (yes, 50!) anthologies he’s edited or co-edited are The Best American Mystery Stories of the Century, The Best American Noir of the Century, and the annual Best American Mystery Stories series, plus a series of “Big Book” anthologies that have included ghost stories, adventure stories, pulp tales, and more.
October welcomes three more additions to that lineup: The Best American Mystery Stories of the 19th Century, The Black Lizard Big Book of Locked-Room Mysteries, and this year’s edition of The Best American Mystery Stories (selected by Laura Lippman).
Penzler spoke by phone on the eve of the three volumes’ publication and in the final days of finishing editorial work on his biggest anthology yet.
ART TAYLOR: I think the obvious first question for you is: "How do you find the time?" But I’m more curious about why the short story ultimately attracts so much of your attention and passion.
OTTO PENZLER: I find the time by working 80-hour weeks. You put in enough hours on enough days and it mounts up.
For Best American Mystery Stories of the 19th Century and the locked-room anthology, I read between 350 and 400 stories for each book. And for Best American Mystery Stories of the year, because I have a great reader who cuts down stuff, I probably read 150 stories. And I’m a slow reader, which is the horrible part. I really wish I were a faster reader, I would save so much time, so much energy.
I’ve always loved short stories. When I first started collecting mystery fiction first editions, I started with Sherlock Holmes and then with short story collections — because of Queen’s Quorum, Ellery Queen’s bibliography of detective short stories, and also a line that I read by the great John Dickson Carr, who said that the short story is the natural form of the detective story. To some degree that’s correct. Really, what we talk about when we talk about a detective story is basically a clue that is going to solve the crime. Lots of red herrings, lots of other suspects, but the fact is that everything hinges on that one clue, and you can do that in a short story just as well as you can in a novel. Of course you don’t have the same kind of character development or complexity. But for pure detective stories, the short story works just as well as the novel.
Because of your work as an editor, do you find that you always read with an eye toward what to cut, what to improve?
Before I was doing all of this mystery stuff professionally as an editor, I read voraciously. There was a time when I had a regular job as a sportswriter, and I could read four or five mystery novels a week — or collections of short stories — for pleasure. I loved it, and that’s why my life has become fully encompassed in the world of books. Now, if I’m not reading short stories for all of my anthologies, or I’m not reading manuscripts for my publishing ventures, I don’t get to read all that much for fun anymore. When I do, I have this imaginary blue pencil in my hand, where I feel like: “Oh, I would’ve changed that,” “Oh, this is extraneous,” “Oh this is something that was said ten pages ago. This is out.” So I’m mentally editing now every published book that I read. And it’s taken a little of the fun out, I hate to say it.
I feel that same way as a professor sometimes. You look at it differently — which made me appreciate your advice in the introduction to the locked-room anthology about not reading these stories on the subway but finding a comfortable chair or propping up pillows in the bed.
It’s called escapist fiction, but then all literature should be escapist, where you’re drawn into the world that you’re reading about. That’s the whole goal of fiction. And I find that almost impossible for me to do nowadays because I’ve done this so much professionally.
As you first sit down to begin each new anthology, are there stories that immediately jump to mind for each theme that you know are must-haves?
Yes. Because I’ve done so much reading over my rather lengthy life, I know a lot of stories. I have warm spots for a lot of short stories that I read as much as 40 or 45 years ago. But I always reread every story, no matter how much I remember loving it. Over 40 years your taste can change. You remember a story, and you read it again 20 years later, and you say I thought that was a really great story, but now it falls flat, or there are 20 stories that are very similar now.
Certainly for the locked-room anthology, it was so easy. You start with John Dickson Carr and Carter Dickson. You have to start there — and the horrible thing is that the agent for the estate knew it. And she held me up. I couldn’t do a locked-room anthology without having Carr and Dickson, and I paid so much to have the right to publish those stories that it makes it impossible to make any money on these books.
Clayton Rawson had to be in the book. Ellery Queen had to be in the book. Then I had some favorite writers who are fairly obscure, people like Frederick Irving Anderson. I didn’t know if he had written any locked-room mysteries or not — I figured he did — so I started reading The Notorious Sophie Lang, The Infallible Godahl, and The Book of Murder, and I found there is an impossible crime, and it’s wonderful. Then I started doing some research in reference books. You try to draw on your memory and say was that an impossible crime? Because thirty years later or whatever it is, you’re not sure if it’s an impossible crime or just a really clever plot. So I did a lot of research.
For The Best American Mystery Stories of the 19th century, I wanted some really serious literary figures to be included in the book, so I read Jack London and Edith Wharton to find out what I could find — Mark Twain, writers like that. I also had remembered writers who are less well known now, like Melville Davisson Post. I love the Randolph Mason stories; they’re just brilliant. And there are a few things that are obscure. I scoured my own collection and pulled books that were published before 1900 and just started reading. There are stories in this collection that no one has read before. I guarantee it.
A number of these authors and stories were new to me in each anthology, and I’ve got some new favorites, like C. Daly King and his Trevis Tarrant stories. Are there any new favorites you discovered or writers you were particularly pleased to bring out of what you called the "unforgiving, vast darkness of time"?
There are a few of those. There’s one about Chinese opium dens — from a very, very obscure book from the 19th century: William Norr’s Stories of Chinatown. I’d never heard of the author before, but I thought it was a likely candidate to have a story in the book, and it was. It was so well written, remembering the racism of its time, that it was worth doing. As nearly as I can tell, he had never written anything else in the world of mystery fiction — or anything else period. So it’s an obscure, rare book, and I thought a really terrific story, a different setting, that most people would ever have a chance to read.
While you’ve got a relative unknown like Norr, you also have very well-known stories here — and Poe’s "Murders in the Rue Morgue" as a cornerstone of each anthology.
How can you have a collection of the best American mystery stories of the 19th century and not include Poe? And the same with the locked-room mystery. The very first detective story, the one date that we all know as the beginning of the detective story, how could you not include that?
How do you think readers encountering that particular story in each anthology might read it differently, given the shift in context from a historical survey to one with locked-mysteries as its theme?
I tried to put the story in context in each book, in the introductions I do for each story. Inevitably they [the introductions for Poe] were somewhat similar, because really the important thing is that it’s the first. It’s the first detective story, it’s the first locked-room mystery, it’s the first American detective story, it’s the first detective story in most ways. But people reading locked-room mysteries may not really care about the development of the detective story in the 19th century. I expect that the 19th-century anthology will end up being taught in university classes. I did a book called Best American Mystery Stories of the Century with Tony Hillerman about 10 years ago, and it’s being used a textbook.
You include three stories in the 19th-century anthology that precede "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" — stories by Washington Irving, William Leggett, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. How do those get included?
Because the title of the book is not the Best American Detective Stories but Best American Mystery Stories. Mystery is a very broad genre that includes detective stories, but it also includes crime stories, suspense stories, and things that don’t rely on detection, observation, and deduction. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s is really kind of a riddle story, almost a humorous story without real detection. The Washington Irving story is a pure crime story and just about as dark as any story that is being written today, but there’s no detection. The one exception is “The Rifle” by William Leggett, which is a real detective story.
A little bit of forensics and everything in that one.
Absolutely! So I think it might be fair to call that the first detective story. It’s maybe not as wonderfully written as the Poe story. It may be lacking some of the tropes of the detective story that we’ve come to know: the omniscient detective who seems to know everything and his somewhat dim-witted sidekick. All those things that were invented by Poe don’t exist in Leggett’s story. But there’s forensics, there’s detection, there’s suspense about whether the innocent man will be convicted and hanged. So it’s a close call. If I were writing the history of the detective story, I think I would now say that this story has almost all the elements that we know as the detective story. [Laughs] So I’m arguing against my own proposition, which is that “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” was the first.
But Poe’s story, of course, still has such a central place in everyone’s imagination.
Nobody’s read “The Rifle.” It’s not reprinted except in one book. Jacques Barzun reprinted in The Delights of Detection. Otherwise, it’s virtually unknown.
In the 19th-century collection, we’ve got a lot of names that many mystery fans might not associate with the genre: Louisa May Alcott, Edith Wharton, Jack London. In your work with the annual editions of The Best American Mystery Stories, you’re also including works beyond what we might usually think of as mystery writers, from publications not primarily genre driven. Is that an explicit goal as an anthologist — to widen your readers’ perceptions of what constitutes mystery writing?
In every edition of Best American Mystery Stories, I provide my definition of a mystery story, which is that it’s any story in which a crime or the threat of a crime is central to the plot or the theme. That leaves a fairly broad landscape in which to include crime stories, detective stories, police procedurals, even espionage stories and spy thrillers.
Specifically with these 19th-century writers, what does their inclusion here say about the development of the mystery story? Were these writers jumping on the bandwagon of Poe’s success, so to speak?
Well, they weren’t jumping on any bandwagon, because there wasn’t any. In America in the 19th century, there was no success. Poe wrote his three short stories, and nobody followed. Nobody started writing detective stories. There was The Dead Letter by Seeley Regester in 1867, and then Anna Katharine Green with The Leavenworth Case in 1878, but there was almost no one else making this a successful form of literature. In England, it became popular with Sherlock Holmes, and even then not with the first two novels but with the short stories in The Strand in 1891 and 1892. So no bandwagons.
But the fact is that when a writer writes about death, murder, blackmail, kidnapping, all those elements that we know as the detective story — there was a lot of that a long time before we started separating genre fiction from literary fiction. Half of Charles Dickens’s books involve murders and crimes of one kind or another. I often use Dostoevsky and Crime and Punishment as a crime novel in many ways. They weren’t defining themselves as mystery writers, but they were writing about extreme passion that made someone that wanted to kill somebody or kidnap somebody or steal something. The key that separates it is that you have to have crime be the central element of the book. There’s a murder at the end of The Great Gastby, but The Great Gatsby could’ve been written without the murder. Crime and Punishment couldn’t have been written without the murder. That’s what separates the crime novel from just a general literary work.
Moving to the locked-room anthology, that phrase suggests a very specific thing — a murder seemingly impossible because the room in which it took place was sealed. But this collection shows a much broader range: no footprints in the snow around a corpse, a man who was strangled in mid-air parachuting alone from an airplane, another man who disappeared from a bathroom shower while his wife was watching, and then the anthology’s final story by Martin Edwards, which, as you said, defies categorization.
A better title for the book would’ve been Big Book of Impossible Crimes or Impossible Mysteries. But “impossible mysteries” doesn’t go together, and “impossible crimes” sounds too much like journalism. So I went with Locked-Room Mysteries.
"Locked-room" has a catchier feel.
It does! And I break the stories into sections in the book. A lot of the stories have nothing to do with a locked room. They have to do with an undisturbed field or snow or whatever the particular gimmick is that the writer used. But “impossible crimes” is a much better definition than only locked rooms, which sounds more narrow.
Among the stories you’ve included here, which one offered the most ingenious twist on this kind of tale?
It’s not a discovery on my part, because it’s already a very highly regarded short story, but I think it’s “The Two Bottles of Relish” [by Lord Dunsany]. That is so horrific — and what a brilliant, brilliant idea. The perfect crime. I like Martin Edwards’s story “Waiting for Godstow.” It’s not like any other story in the book. And then there’s a largely unknown story by a largely unknown writer: Stephen Barr’s “The Locked Room to End Locked Rooms.” Absolutely brilliant. A tour de force. I think it’s the cleverest story in the entire book.
Each of these books is massive. But in either case, were there stories you wanted to include and couldn’t? Any regrets or second-guessing?
Not in the 19th-century collection. I used everything I wanted to use, because I didn’t have to fight with agents about rights. But for the locked-room anthology, yes. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote an impossible crime story — set on a train — and it’s a wonderful story. But the agent wanted so much money that I simply couldn’t afford to buy it. That was my only regret in that book, though I every now and then think, “Oh, that other John Dickson Carr story was so good, maybe I should’ve used that one,” and the same with Clayton Rawson, The Great Merlini stories. They’re so good, they’re so intelligent. I finally pick a story and say I’ll use this, and then I’m looking at the Merlini stories a few months ago, and I thought maybe I should’ve used that instead. It’s not a regret so much as self-questioning.
So many great stories, and you want to share them all.
And this book is big enough that I feel like I almost did! It could be 2,000 pages, and someone will come along and say, “Why didn’t you use this story?”
Inevitably, I have to ask: What’s the next anthology you’re working on?
I’m about two weeks away from delivering the next book, which is Big Book of Sherlock Holmes Stories. I’ve been working on this since January, and I’ve read maybe 400 stories. There’s really a lot of dreadful Sherlock Holmes parodies. Anyone who wants to write — and can’t — decides to use Sherlock Holmes as a character. But there’s some fabulous stuff. You have stories by major figures like P.G. Wodehouse, Anthony Burgess, Kingsley Amis, Neil Gaiman, Stephen King, so it’s been a really great project. It might be the biggest of all the “Big Books” that I’ve done. I’m closing in on almost 89 stories now, and I think I have to stop. [Laughs] I just have to stop.