Otto Penzler is the proprietor of The Mysterious Bookshop in New York City and is regarded as the world’s foremost authority on crime, mystery and suspense fiction.
He founded The Mysterious Press in 1975. He sold it to Warner Books in 1989. He reacquired the imprint in 2010 and it now publishes original books as an imprint at Grove/Atlantic, and both original works and classic crime fiction through MysteriousPress.com, in partnership with Open Road Integrated Media.
Penzler is a prolific editor, and has won two Edgar Awards, for Encyclopedia of Mystery and Detection in 1977 and The Lineup in 2010. The Mystery Writers of America awarded him the prestigious Ellery Queen Award in 1994 and the Raven–the group’s highest non-writing award–in 2003.
I first came to know Otto’s work a few years ago, when I purchased
The Black Lizard Big Book of Black Mask Stories which he edited.
His latest book is The Big Book of Espionage which features great stories from Lee Child, Charles McCarry, Ian Fleming, Eric Ambler, Sara Paretsky, and Jeffrey Deaver (just to name a few). It’s out now, I highly recommend this anthology.
As a fan of Otto’s work and as someone who has been at the forefront of the mystery/crime fiction/thriller genre for fifty years, I was delighted to have the opportunity to interview him about his work, book shop, mysteries, spy stories, and a lot more.
Other Books Edited by Otto Penzler
Connect with Otto Penzler
If you’re in New York City make sure to visit Otto’s Mysterious Bookshop.
Ott’s publishing company, MysteriousPress.com.
Check out Otto’s Mysterious Bookshop Gift Guide 2020. Great gift ideas for mystery/thriller/true crime lovers!
Podcast Transcript from Otto Penzler interview.
Please note, I’m using software to transcribe. It does a decent job, and I do a quick pass to clean it up, but it might not be perfect.
[00:00:00.285] – Alan Petersen
You are listening to Meet the Thriller Author, the podcast where I interview Writers of Mysteries, Thrillers and Suspense Books. I’m your host, Alan Peterson, and this is episode number one hundred and twenty three. In this episode of the podcast, we’ll be meeting Otto Penzler, who is the Edgar Award winning editor of 16 Vintage Crime Black Lizard anthologies including The Black Lizard, Big Book of Locked Room Mysteries, The Big Book of Sherlock Holmes Stories, The Big Book of Jack the Ripper. And that’s just to name a few. He is back with a new anthology that has gathered the intel on the world’s greatest secret agents declassified in these pages for the very first time. The big book of espionage is out now, and it has it all state secrets, double agents, leaks Otto Penzler brings you all this and more with his latest title in the big book series. These are great stories from Lee Child and Charles McCarry, just to name a couple. He’s really pulled these stories from the shadows and into the light for the first time. So it’s really fantastic. Really had a great time chatting with Otto Penzler about his anthologies, about running his iconic bookstore, The Mysterious Bookshop in New York City during this pandemic. We talked about spy fiction, of course, and a lot more. So stay tuned for that interview coming up. But first, a heads up. It’s the Black Friday time of the year when just about every retailer out there is having some pretty sweet deals. It’s a great time to find deals on software app. And what I want to tell you about is providing aid is a fantastic tool for writers. And I’ve been using it for a couple of years now to improve my writing. It’s a grammar checker, a style editor, a writing mentor in one package, and it works great with Scrivener, which is what I used to write my books, but it also works great with the word. It works with my Chrome browser. It’s just a really nifty tool. I use it to clean up my manuscript as much as I can before I send it out to my editor. So although for me it was replaced by human editor. It helps me improve my manuscript a ton before I send it off to the editor and a proofreader. And so they’re offering a 50 percent off Black Friday sale that’s going on right now. And it runs until Monday, November 30th at eleven fifty nine Pacific Standard Time in the United States. So go to Thrillingreads.com/pwa to check it out. That’s www.thrillingreads.com/pwa that is my affiliate link, so it’s a great way to support a podcast. All right. Here’s my interview with Otto Penzler.
[00:02:36.775] – Alan Petersen
Hi Otto welcome to the podcast. So excited to talk to you today.
[00:02:40.585] – Otto Penzler
Thanks so much for having me, Alan. It’s a pleasure to be here.
[00:02:42.755] – Alan Petersen
I’m very excited about the work that you’ve done, the work that you’ve put together over the years. We’ll talk about those books a little bit about your background and how you got into into doing all these great stories together.
[00:02:55.105] – Otto Penzler
Well, I’ve been involved in the world of mystery for more than half a century. And, you know, both as a as a reader first and as a collector and then as a publisher for the mysterious start of the mysterious press 45 years ago. And then with the mysterious bookshop, which started 41 years ago, getting close to 42. I see. My goodness. So, you know, inevitably, when you if you’re a fan and you get to know a lot about a subject, the idea of of editing an anthology is is attractive. And so I’ve done that for many years. And then fortunately, Random House vintage imprint gave me the opportunity to do a big book. And the dream of most anthologist is that they would have more room to include more stories that they love. And they gave me the chance to do that. These, you know, these big books, they’re called big books for real good reason. They’re 800 to 1000 double column oversized pages. You know, they’re the equivalent of six or seven real books. And so they I was pretty much unlimited in how many stories I could use in one of these books, 60, 70, even 80 stories in a couple of the books. So I get to live my my dream by doing really deep digging into into a particular subject and do the biggest book I can on that subject. So that’s great.
[00:04:32.155] – Alan Petersen
So that’s great. Do they like they basically give you like the hand you the keys to their archives.
[00:04:36.685] – Otto Penzler
I use my own archive.
[00:04:38.125] – Alan Petersen
Oh, wow, your own archive look.
[00:04:39.865] – Otto Penzler
Oh yeah, I, I collected mystery fiction first editions for more than 50 years and my library got to 60,000 volumes, 60,000, which is more than you think it is.
[00:04:59.975] – Alan Petersen
I’ve been a big fan of your work, I bought the Black Mask stories that you put together a few years ago and I think that was like 1000 pages. This is it’s a big book.
[00:05:11.825] – Otto Penzler
It’s a big book where all of the books in this series have are called Big Books for a reason. They’re really big and espionage is not quite as big. It’s only about 800 double column pages, eight by 10. So it’s only the equivalent of about six books, not eight books.
[00:05:31.925] – Alan Petersen
And so that is your latest book is called The Big Book of Espionage. And that comes out. And that comes out. Is that evidence that coming out November eight? Oh, it’s comes out tomorrow, November.
[00:05:44.585] – Otto Penzler
And I think it came out I think the official pub date publication date was a couple of days ago. I forget what the official publication date was, because once I have the book in my hand, I think, oh, it’s it’s published. But I get some advance copies, as has the editor. So I’m not sure what the official date is, but I think I think it was last week.
[00:06:05.675] – Alan Petersen
So definitely by the time listeners are listening to this interview, it’ll be out. So they can pick it up. Highly recommended, I love spy stories. Is that something you’ve always been interested in? Espionage stories.
[00:06:21.095] – Otto Penzler
Sure. You know, when I read a lot of crime fiction, mystery fiction, detective espionage, suspense, it’s all part of the world of mystery, the way I define it. So I’ve been reading spy stories for a very long time because I also liked adventure stories when I was when I was a lot younger. And a lot of those stories overlap. Some of the same writers like John Buchan, for example, who wrote The 39 Steps. It’s kind of an adventure story, but it’s really also kind of an espionage story. And there were quite a few stories like that, which I really enjoyed and still do.
[00:07:02.945] – Alan Petersen
And so can you tell us a little bit about the big book of espionage? When did you get the idea and how long did it take you to to put this all together?
[00:07:10.625] – Otto Penzler
Well, once a year I deliver my book in October of the year when I finished a book, I deliver it to my editor and we have lunch. It’s a very civilised world. And at the lunch he’ll say, so do you have an idea for the next book? And I would give him my idea for the next book and he’d say, That sounds great. And then I would get a contract, but I would start reading immediately. The books take a year because I read three, four, in some cases 500 stories to come up with the absolute best stories to to go into the book. And, you know, I’ve had lots of ideas for the story. I did a big book of Sherlock Holmes stories, big book of Pulps, a big book of Jack the Ripper, a big book of locked room mysteries, big book of Christmas mysteries. So, you know, once a year I come up with an idea. And the idea this year was that I would do espionage spy stories. And that’s the book that has just come out.
[00:08:14.315] – Alan Petersen
And I see an amazing lineup. And some I can you know. Oh, Ian Fleming, of course, and Eric Ambler. But I also see you have a story from like Lee Child that struck me because I didn’t know he wrote espionage stories.
[00:08:27.755] – Otto Penzler
He didn’t write a lot of espionage stories, but he wrote one. And that made it into the book because I just really am a big fan of Lee Child, both as a person and as as a writer. So I was happy to use his very unusual and quite an unusual story. I don’t know if you’ve read it yet, but it’s very different from the other stories in this book. But he’s such a creative guy. You would expect that.
[00:08:54.125] – Alan Petersen
And so how many stories are in this book?
[00:08:57.395] – Otto Penzler
I think it’s about 70. I don’t remember. I may I may have known the number at one point, but, you know, it’s a year ago that I turned this book. And so since then, I’ve done another book. So I don’t really remember exactly. But it’s it’s probably around 65 or 70, you know. And as you said, you’d expect Ian Fleming and Eric Ambler and some of you know the big names in that field, John Buchan and so on, Joseph Finder. But there are also some very obscure stories that are not available anywhere else. You know, and you know, somebody else interviewed me about about the book and said, well, but you can find it. You can find these stories if you look around here enough places. And the truth is there about probably a third of the stories here. No, you can’t. The books are really rare because of my collection, you know, of first editions, some of those. Books that are so rare that you wouldn’t find those stories anywhere, not in your library, not on Amazon, if you’ll excuse the language or anywhere in any other in most any other bookshop, there’s just a really obscure.
[00:10:13.785] – Alan Petersen
Yeah, that’s something that I found with the Black Mask stories that you put together. Those weren’t like the you know, like the ones you’re expected. Like you said, they’re very obscure. So that’s so that’s just because you have such an incredible collection and an eye for it . Do you know, like right away, like, oh, this will be a great for the anthology.
[00:10:31.905] – Otto Penzler
Yeah. I mean, the Black Mask, you know, obviously you’d expect Hammett and Chandler as the great names of that and even Ralph Whitfield and Frederick Nebel, people like that that are sort of the second tier of their major writers. But then, you know, it was a magazine that lasted for 50 years, half a century. And some of those stories were never reprinted. They were never collected in book form. And so you have to use a collection like mine to to find all of that.
[00:11:04.275] – Alan Petersen
Yeah, and just the timesaving, too, which is for somebody, even if they could find that, I mean, be you know, they’re both probably impossible to do to do that.
[00:11:15.045] – Otto Penzler
It is it’s impossible to find them. But also, I’ve done some of the heavy lifting by finding the best of the stories. So, you know, you could read a whole magazine or a whole anthology or a whole collection of an author’s works to find all these stories by various writers. But I really read all those hundreds of stories to make sure that I found the absolute best to put it into the anthology.
[00:11:41.415] – Alan Petersen
Another book of yours that I that I have the best American crime reporting that you put together. I think that came out like 10 years ago.
[00:11:52.305] – Otto Penzler
That was the nonfiction book?
[00:11:53.175] – Alan Petersen
Yeah, yeah, yeah. I’m sorry. That was a non-fiction one. I the I’ve been a big fan of that book as well as this one, so thank you.
[00:12:01.495] – Otto Penzler
I did Thomas Cook and I did nine of those together for four for Random House and for Harper. And unfortunately we love those books. They were really we were really proud of them. And they were I thought they were just great books. But, you know, they really didn’t sell all that well. And so they stopped being published.
[00:12:25.125] – Alan Petersen
That’s too bad because I remember seeing him in the library and I was like, oh, wow. Because I, I had I know you’re using anthologies, but but just to get in ideas and stuff for stories I thought was just a great resource book for writers. So they were really great resource for story ideas for writers.
[00:12:40.425] – Otto Penzler
They’re great journalists working in America who dug into crimes either contemporary or historical. And we did a lot of reading and in some major magazines and newspapers, which you’d expect, but also some very obscure little magazines to to find those stories. The espionage is a little bit more accessible, especially since the contemporary writers, they’re all writers I read. So I know all of them. I mean, I think the greatest espionage writer that America ever produced is Charles McCarry. And there are two Charles McCarry stories in this. He only wrote two short stories, but they were both absolute masterpieces. And I think they’re both actually the two best stories in the entire book, even in a world with Somerset Maugham and and Ian Fleming and Lee Child and Joseph FInder and others.
[00:13:43.545] – Alan Petersen
Yeah, those that haven’t I haven’t read his those the stories from his. I’m looking forward to to reading those.
[00:13:51.105] – Otto Penzler
And he looked the tears of Autumn, which was a big New York Times bestseller, and it was his view of the Kennedy assassination. And Harry was a CIA agent in undercover for many years and knew a lot. And when I when I read The Tears of Autumn, which is arguably the greatest espionage novel ever written by an American, I asked him, I said is, is any of this true? And he said, yes, as a fellow tribbles, what he said, because you’ll believe it. You know, I mean, everybody has their theories about who was involved, how many people were involved, who was responsible. You know, was this just one crazy Lee Harvey Oswald or were there to have support? Were there other people who put him up to it and so on? There were so many theories about it. And if you when you when somebody read. The tears of autumn, you walk away from that saying, oh, I bet this is exactly what happened because it’s so well done and so realistic.
[00:15:04.895] – Alan Petersen
And the line up here, like we’ve already touched base here. Ian Fleming, Eric Ambler, what are some of the other names? I see Jefferey Deaver is in there also.
[00:15:13.115] – Otto Penzler
Yeah. There are people that you might not even expect to see in there, like Sara Paretsky. You know, we’re not used to seeing too many women write mystery fiction, but she wrote a brilliant story that’s in here, James Grady, who wrote Six Days of the Condor. Oh, yeah, there’s a Condor story in here. You know, the same character, Jeffrey Deaver, who’s a, you know, frequent New York Times bestseller is in here, or Stanley Gardner, who we usually associate with Perry Mason, you know, the Perry Mason series, the bestselling series of mysteries ever written by an American. I think he’s second to Agatha Christie worldwide for the number of bestsellers that he’s had, the number of books that he sold. But but he wrote an espionage thriller. Oh, Henry, I would expect Henry to have written a, you know, an espionage novel, a spy novel. But he did. Arthur Conan Doyle, his he is a Sherlock Holmes story. That is a pure espionage novel. A story, brother. Oh, know. So it’s it’s a it’s a great line up. Some of these there’s so many good stories here. Stephen Hunter, his he’s a wonderful writer with a great character named Bob Lee Swagger, known as the nailer, because he’s a sniper who always nails the enemy. And and he wrote a terrific World War two story in here called Citadel. So it’s a very I admit and I’m very proud of this book.
[00:17:02.645] – Alan Petersen
Where you always a fan growing up before even before you you got into into the book business, were you a fan of mysteries and thrillers and spy stories?
[00:17:12.155] – Otto Penzler
You know, strangely enough, I wasn’t when I was a kid, I was reading a lot of nonfiction as a kid, which is unusual for 10 year olds to be reading about animals and to be reading about space and things of that sort. I’ve read a lot of science fiction. I really didn’t read mysteries until I graduated and came back to New York and I was an English major. And so, you know, when you’re an English major, you read Joyce and T.S. Eliot and the Russian novelists and and all those things that really require deep concentration. And when I get back, I was always a reader. When I got back to New York, I wanted to keep reading, but I also didn’t want to hurt my head for a while. So I thought, you know, I’ve never read mysteries. Let me let me read mysteries. And I started and fell in love with them. You know, at first I started, as so many people did with Sherlock Holmes and then went on to the big names like Agatha Christie and Ellery Queen and John Dickson Carr. And then I read Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett and I realized this is real literature. It’s really literature. It’s not just about puzzles. It’s about beautiful writing and about great characters and dialogue. People saying things in a way that you never heard them say it before. And I became really devoted to to mysteries, you know, in my early 20s and then continued. I kept reading and I kept I started collecting and one thing led to another. I started a publishing company and I opened a bookshop. But it really came from love, just the love of reading. That is what impelled me to make my career mystery fiction and the mysterious bookshop.
[00:19:09.425] – Alan Petersen
With this pandemic, how is your bookstore? OK, are you open again? How is that that affected as well.
[00:19:16.385] – Otto Penzler
It’s it hasn’t been helpedI can tell you that in New York City we were forced to shut down. I wasn’t even allowed to go into the store. Oh, for three months from March to June. Then we were allowed back in the store, but we didn’t. But customers weren’t allowed for another two or three weeks. Now they’re allowed. But a lot of New Yorkers are still nervous about getting on to public transportation. You know, we don’t have a lot of driving in New York. As you know, there’s there’s a thing called curbside pickup. Throughout the country, but we don’t leave stuff out on the curb here in New York, I think be gone in three seconds.
[00:20:05.835] – Alan Petersen
Same here in San Francisco.
[00:20:07.635] – Otto Penzler
Be gone in seconds but not necessarily by the customer. But we do now. We do have people back in the store happily. It’s a small number, not like it was, but our mail order, you know, we have a obviously we have a website and we have a mailing list of many, many thousands of customers who know the bookshop. And so things have gotten a little bit better. But we do miss our walk in traffic. And, you know, we were famous for having autographed books like that was the one where we could compete with places like Amazon and Barnes and Noble. But others are touring these days, so it’s harder for us to get signed books. But we manage. We have we have a lot of the authors are friends of the store. They’ve been very generous to us. They’ll allow us to ship them books to be signed. And so we’re we’re coming back. We’re we’re we’re not OK, but we’re OK. Compared to, say, the restaurants in New York, which are really struggling for a thousand, have closed permanently.
[00:21:19.455] – Alan Petersen
We’re going through here, this in San Francisco to a lot of our favorite restaurants are gone forever. So, yeah, it’s going to be kind of sad. But but I’m glad that you’re at your bookstore still open. And hopefully when when when we start going a little bit, I hate to say back to normal, because I don’t think it’s all the way back to normal, a bit more to normal than we’re used to. Definitely when I go to New York City I’m going to stop by your bookstore.
[00:21:43.605] – Otto Penzler
Come in and say hello, introduce yourself. Yeah. You know, I think you’ll like the store. It’s a real old fashioned store. It’s pretty big. It’s about 2000 square feet on the floor, the selling floor. And we sell books. We don’t sell greeting cards or, you know, not much in the way of games or jigsaw puzzles or toys or things like that. We sell books and it’s a real bookstore.
[00:22:10.605] – Alan Petersen
Yeah. For the listeners, they go check out your website, the mysterious bookshop dot com, because that right there, it’s like you can get lost for for a while perusing your website.
[00:22:21.675] – Otto Penzler
Yeah, it’s it’s a it’s a good Web site. A lot of people say, oh, I guess you don’t have all these books by Agatha Christie. We don’t have everything on the website. About 10 percent of our books on the website, even though there’s a lot on the website, there’s so much more in the store. And, you know, it’s hard to get. And we have you know, we have so many rare books and out of print books as well. And it’s hard to keep those up on the website because people buy them, you know, and then they’re gone. It’s not like books that are in print.
[00:22:53.955] – Alan Petersen
Yeah, I just seen that I was perusing the site before and now seeing the. Yeah. You had like a limited edition from Lee child, Michael Connelly, and that’s kind of amazing. How does a I mean, is that just from you like finding these treasures? I mean, this is going how do you even come across these?
[00:23:10.605] – Otto Penzler
We publish them.
[00:23:11.655] – Alan Petersen
Oh, you publish them
[00:23:12.495] – Otto Penzler
We publish them in the bookshop. We’re the only place that you can buy these limited editions. We’re we’re we’ve done and we’ve been doing the complete Jack Reacher. We’ve done the first fourteen or fifteen. Jack Reacher, the next one actually comes in to the store from the printer and the binder tomorrow while we do the limited edition that beautiful marble boards and leather spines of Lee has been very generous about writing a new introduction to every one of the books. There are no 100 copies and signed, of course, but they’re expensive. They’re expensive to make and they’re they’re costly. But it’s a beautiful, beautiful collection. And then we do. We’ve been doing that with Michael Connolly and other writers, too. Dennis Lehane and Elmore Leonard and James Ellroy can brew. And so we’ve we published limited editions, have been publishing limited editions in our store for about fifteen years, and they’re available only here. We don’t sell them to Barnes and Noble or Amazon or other chains.
[00:24:24.525] – Alan Petersen
So absolutely, if anyone has bibliophiles in their family for Christmas, you you’ve got to go you’ve got to go check out your website.
[00:24:32.535] – Otto Penzler
You’re right. You’re right. I’m glad you said that.
[00:24:35.505] – Alan Petersen
Well, so I was thinking like, wow, this will make a great, great gift. But but anyway, I got sidetracked. So so what are you working on next? You said you were working on another book, another anthologies or.
[00:24:49.635] – Otto Penzler
Well, I was working on it, but it’s I delivered it in October actually a little bit earlier than October. This year, it’s the big book of Victorian detective stories, you know, books set in the obviously during the Victorian era, and I delivered it a little bit early because I was locked out of my store for three months. So I got to read a little more time to read than I usually do. And so I delivered it a few months early and it’ll be coming out October of next year. So I don’t know if I if I have any more books. I didn’t come up with an idea this year, so I may be done with those, but I am editing Best Mystery Stories of the Year, which will come out from the mysterious press in 2021, October of 2021. All right.
[00:25:44.495] – Alan Petersen
And so and then the big book of espionage is out. Now this is go check it out. Some amazing stories. I’m definitely going to have some fun with that one over the Thanksgiving weekend. Here we got coming.
[00:25:56.765] – Otto Penzler
Readers will love it because it goes on for a long time. You can get lost in it.
[00:26:03.895] – Alan Petersen
OK, well, thank you so much for coming on the on the show and talking to us about books. I really enjoyed talking with you.
[00:26:11.105] – Otto Penzler
It’s been a pleasure, Alan. Thanks so much for having me.
[00:26:13.205] – Alan Petersen
Thanks for listening to the Thriller author podcast. Be sure to visit Thriller authors Dotcom to join the conversation, access the show notes and discover great, thrilling reads. If you enjoy the podcast, I’d love for you to subscribe and give a review to it. Wherever it is that you’re listening to this podcast at iTunes, Apple podcast, Google podcast, Stitcher, tune in Spotify, whatever it is that you listening to this right now. I would appreciate it. And please do check out my own thriller novels over my website at AlanPetersen.com. Until next time.