CIS: Interview with Otto Penzler

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Classics in September — Surely there are few people on the planet who are more knowledgeable on the topic of crime fiction than Otto Penzler. The American author, editor and publisher won an Edgar Award back in 1977 for co-writing the Encyclopedia of Mystery and Detection, and he picked up another one in 2010 for The Lineup: The World’s Greatest Crime Writers Tell the Inside Story of Their Greatest Detectives. He has many more accolades to his name, and ran the Mysterious Bookshop in New York for 25 years. But perhaps he is best known for founding Mysterious Press, publishing thousands of crime fiction titles, and working with writers such as Ed McBain, Len Deighton, PD James, Patricia Highsmith, Lawrence Block and many more.

Today, publishes a wonderful range of retro crime classics – noir, suspense, hardboiled, police procedurals, thrillers… you name it. And the company has just brought out the digital version of Penzler’s award winning book The Great Detectives. As part of our Classics in September series, Otto Penzler joins us to talk about what he loves about the crime genre…

First off, can you tell us a bit about why you became interested in mystery in the first place, and what you love most about it?
Having been an English major at the University of Michigan, I just wanted to read light, undemanding books just for the fun of it when I came back to New York, so I started to read detective fiction, which I hadn’t done when I was younger. When I came across Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, James M Cain, and others, I soon learned that the best mystery writers had as much depth and literary style as mainstream fiction writers did. At the same time, I began to collect first editions of mystery fiction, which was extremely affordable back then since there was little competition for books. I amassed a sizable library pretty quickly, feeding my reading habit – three or four books a week.

Do you have a favourite type of mystery novel?
Though I read across the spectrum in my early years, I focused on Victorian novels – Wilkie Collins remains my favourite – and the Golden Age, especially John Dickson Carr, Agatha Christie, SS Van Dine, Christianna Brand and Ellery Queen. Today, I am less demanding of the plot strictures of the pure detective novels, but much prefer authors with a real sense of literary style. Thomas H Cook, KC Constantine, Michael Connelly, Joyce Carol Oates, Elmore Leonard, Charles McCarry and John le Carre, back when he was good. They are all different from each other but all create fully credible characters and use language in a way that echoes in the memory.

What are some classic mystery titles that have influenced you the most?
I’m not sure about influence, since I don’t, or can’t, write fiction, but probably The Woman in White, The Hound of the Baskervilles, The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep were significant to me because the first two made me fall in love with the genre and the latter two showed me that entertaining novels can also have profundity and poetry.

Any other favorites?
Too many to list, as one would expect with a half-century of reading, but a few books always spring to mind: James Crumley’s The Last Good Kiss, McCarry’s The Tears of Autumn, Ross Thomas’ Chinaman’s Chance, Cook’s Breakheart Hill, Ira Levin’s A Kiss Before Dying, Ross Macdonald’s The Chill, Thomas Harris’ Red Dragon, and pretty much everything written by Connelly, Nelson DeMille, Robert Crais, John D MacDonald, Robert B Parker and Rex Stout.

What makes you want to set aside a book in frustration?
Clichés. As soon as someone sees himself in a mirror and describes what he sees, or when the most brilliant nuclear physicist on the planet is a gorgeous 29-year-old woman, or there’s a fight with the hero knocking out four thugs with single punches, I’m gone. And clichés of language drive me up a wall… to use a cliché!

In your opinion, what’s one of the most underrated crime novels out there?
There are hundreds, maybe thousands. Of course, if I mention them, they won’t mean much because you probably never heard of them and they are, in all likelihood, unavailable. The early Moodrow novels by Stephen Solomita, most of the works of Stanley Ellin and KC Constantine, and a sublime, subtle suspense novel by Anne Fine titled The Killjoy.

As a publisher, editor, author and bookshop owner, no doubt you’ve met many talented crime writers. Which authors of early crime fiction would you love to have met?
Because my bookshop was located in the heart of Manhattan for more than a quarter of a century, pretty much every author came by, mostly on a regular basis, and I’m happy to say that many have become close friends over the years. I think it would have been great fun to meet some of the early espionage writers – John Buchan, E Phillips Oppenheim, Baroness Orczy – because they led such fascinating lives aside from their books. The same is true for Roald Dahl and Ian Fleming.

What Mysterious Press projects are you most excited about at the moment?
I’m totally jazzed about books on The Mysterious Press list for this fall: a totally new, previously unpublished book by Dashiell Hammett, Return of the Thin Man; the first in a World War I espionage series by the Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Olen Butler, The Hot Country; and Daddy Love, one of the darkest and most terrifying novels that Joyce Carol Oates has ever written. I’m also excited and nervous about being a guest of honour at Noircon in Philadelphia, proving that if you hang around long enough someone will notice and recognise you. Very nice.

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