Otto Penzler: Four Decades of Rockin’ the Mystery World

By Maria Giordano
Killer Nashville Staff

Otto PenzlerIn the world of mystery writing, Otto Penzler is one of those legendary rock stars.

No, crowds are not chanting his name and throwing their underwear on stage. Still, Otto appears to receive a similar kind of reverence, mostly among other writers. Voices fade away and eyes grow wide when they speak of the owner of the Mysterious Bookshop in New York City and the publisher of some of the most well-known writers in the world.

Penzler, one writer said, is a major influencer in the publishing world and is responsible since 1975 for mainstreaming the mystery-writing genre in America. He has published such best-selling mystery and crime authors as Isaac Asimov, Robert Bloch, James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler, James Ellroy, P.D. James, Ed McBain, Ross Macdonald, Mickey Spillane, and Donald Westlake. The Mysterious Press still publishes today as an imprint of Grove / Atlantic.

But it all started fairly innocently to hear Penzler talk. He arrived in New York in the 1970s as an English major fresh from the University of Michigan. He had been reading some of the greats in college, but needed a break. “I wanted to read something light and more fun, not so challenging,” he said. 

So, he turned to mysteries and discovered writers who were every bit as talented and complex as the ones he had learned about in college, including Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Agatha Christie, to name a few.

Out of this experience grew a love of mystery fiction so deep, he founded a mystery store devoted to the genre, and developed the Encyclopedia of Mystery and Detection, a book he co-authored with Chris Steinbrunner, and for which he won the Edgar Allan Poe Award in 1977.

Success with both enterprises found him in the business full-time and instrumental in the careers of many authors such as Donald Westlake and Ellis Peters. He also continues to edit and write.

Penzler has edited more than seventy anthologies of crime fiction, both of reprints and newly commissioned stories, including the prestigious Best American Mystery Stories of the Year. His 2012 title, In Pursuit of Spenser, was nominated for yet another Edgar Award.

Penzler says pivotal moments in his own career were 1) unlocking his appreciation for mystery fiction and 2) having access to an entire building on 56th Avenue in Midtown Manhattan to grow his enterprise. Another highlight was signing James Ellroy early in his career, he said.

A fast-talking sophisticate, Penzler continues to helm his specialty store now located in downtown Tribecca. As a credit to him, when times changed, so did he. When digital books looked like a train that wouldn’t stop, Penzler adapted. “It looked scary for a while, but then I started with the E-books. I wish I could tell the future.”

Upcoming major projects Penzler is working on include Jack of Spades by Joyce Carol Oates, works by Johan Katzenbach and Thomas Perry, and the continued growth of The Mysterious Press.

According to the Mysterious Bookshop website, Mysterious Press exists in three forms: MysteriousPress.com, The Mysterious Press at Grove / Atlantic, and The Mysterious Press at HighBridge Audio.

The following can be read at www.mysteriousbookshop.com:

MysteriousPress.com

Mysterious pressWorking in conjunction with Open Road Integrated Media, MysteriousPress.com is converting previously-published works to eBook formats from notable authors like James Ellroy, Donald Westlake, Ross Thomas, Brian Garfield, and Christianna Brand, among others. The press is also publishing original novels by previously published authors and talented newcomers, some of which are available as print editions.

The Mysterious Press at Grove / Atlantic

Mysterious PressThis press, an imprint of Grove / Atlantic, features new releases from such Edgar Award–winning authors as Thomas H. Cook, Andrew Klavan, and Thomas Perry. 

 

The Mysterious Press at HighBridge Audio

HighBridge Audio, a leading publisher of spoken word audio, is producing audio books of Mysterious Press’s books, from both the Grove / Atlantic and MysteriousPress.com lines.