- - Monday, January 27, 2020

I’ve often been told that short-story collections don’t sell, which is disheartening, as I love short stories and 10 of my crime-fiction short stories have appeared in online magazines.

Otto Penzler, the president and CEO of MysteriousPress.com and the owner of the Mysterious Bookshop in New York City, disagrees with that notion, as his anthologies of short stories sell quite well.

He is the editor of a good number of anthologies, such as “The Big Book of Reel Murders: Stories That Inspired Great Crime Films,” which I reviewed here, as well as “The Big Book of Pulps,” “The Big Book of Female Detectives,” “The Big Book of Sherlock Holmes Stories” and “The Big Book of Jack the Ripper.” He also edits “The Best American Mystery Stories of the Year” series, the “Best American Crime Reporting” series, and other collections.

Otto Penzler has for decades been the champion of crime stories. The Mystery Writers of America presented him with two Edgar Awards, one for his “Encyclopedia of Mystery and Detection” in 1977 and another for “The Lineup” in 2010. The Mystery Writers of America also presented him with the Ellery Queen Award in 1994 and the Raven, the organization’s highest non-writing award, in 2003.

I asked Otto Penzler how “The Big Book” series began. 

“It started when a British publisher asked if I could do a collection of pulp stories,” Mr. Penzler recalled. “He said do one on detectives. I barely started and he said do another one on women in pulps, and then while you’re at it, do one on villains. I produced three books and each one was about 500 pages. My agent saw these and said we should get an American publisher. The editor of Vintage liked the books and wanted to make them into one big book. He published the first “Big Book,” “The Big Book of Pulps.”

Otto Penzler said the book was so successful that his editor asked him to next edit “The Big Book of Black Masks Stories.”

“The ‘Big Books’ are a terrific bargain,” Mr. Penzler said. “It is like buying six books.”

I asked him how he selected the stories for his anthologies.

“I’ve been doing this for more than 50 years. I’ve been a reader, a collector, an editor, a publisher, and a book seller,” Mr. Penzler said. “I’ve read voraciously for many years and my collection is nearly 60,000 volumes of first editions of mystery, thriller, espionage and suspense.

“I have a phenomenal library to pick from and I start by finding the subject I’m working on — let’s say, female detectives. I have a big reference library as well, and I find all the authors who are appropriate, and I pull off the books and I start reading. For most of the books I read between 400 and 500 stories and then pick the stories that I think are the best, which means my favorites.”

Otto Penzler began as a copy boy at the New York Daily News in 1963 and he moved up to become a sportswriter. In 1969 he moved over to ABC Sports and became the director of publicity and later worked as a news writer for the “Reasoner Report” with Harry Reasoner. He moved on to become a freelance writer and started the Mysterious Press.

With a partner, he bought a building in New York for the Mysterious Press and realizing that he had a good deal of vacant space, he thought it would be fun to open a book shop.

“I didn’t know anything about publishing when I started, and I didn’t know anything about running a book shop,” Mr. Penzler said.  

Mr. Penzler said that the late, great crime novelist Raymond Chandler was the person responsible for his tremendous affection for mystery fiction.

“When I read Raymond Chandler, I said this is real literature.” Mr. Penzler said. “Suddenly, the plots became less important to me. With other mystery writers, the plot was essential, the raison d’etre for the book. With Chandler, it was the writing, the characters and the dialogue.

“The poetry of the prose is what attracted me to him and made me understand that mystery fiction was serious literature.”

I asked Mr. Penzler if there was a future for print books, or will books only be read online?

“That’s what everyone was predicting ten years ago,” Mr. Penzler said. “It’s not true. My bookstore is doing better now than it was five years ago.”

Otto Penzler continues to champion crime stories. The next “Big Book” published will be his “The Big Book of Espionage Stories,” and he is currently working on “The Big Book of Victorian Mystery Stories.”

• Paul Davis’ On Crime column covers true crime, crime fiction, mysteries and thrillers.

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