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Otto Penzler’s nirvana of noir

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The suspense is palpable when you enter The Mysterious Bookshop in New York City.

It’s oozing from the 20,000 crime, suspense, detective, and espionage books crammed floor-to-ceiling on the ground floor of a red-brick industrial building in New York City’s Tribeca neighborhood.

For aficionados of whodunits, this literary enclave has become an increasingly rare nirvana of noir. It lays claim to being the longest-running mystery bookstore in the world and the only one left standing in the Big Apple. But the store, already an endangered species, is closed temporarily due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Running a bookshop is a very difficult business, because the margins are so small that it doesn’t take much to put the business in jeopardy,” says Penzler, BA ’63. “Publishing is also a very risky business and not hugely lucrative, but I’ve made a decent living over the years.”

While the future of his retail operation remains a mystery, Penzler is confident he can manage the uncertainties to come.

“If I came back to life as a fictional detective, it would probably be Philip Marlowe [Raymond Chandler’s hard-boiled private eye], because he’s a tough guy and I’d like to think I’m a tough guy too,” Penzler says.

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Otto Penzler at bookshop

Otto Penzler, BA ’63, in his happy place. (Image courtesy of Otto Penzler.)

The mastermind behind the Mysterious Bookshop and the publishing enterprise MysteriousPress.com has spent the past 45 years publishing, editing, promoting, and selling mystery books and anthologies.

His unwavering devotion to a literary genre once regarded as frivolous and unworthy has earned him recognition as the world’s foremost authority on crime, mystery, and suspense fiction.

“My goal since the day I launched the Mysterious Press in 1975 has been to have mystery fiction recognized as mainstream literature,” Penzler says. “I’ve always maintained the best mystery writers of the past, and the present, have every bit as much literary gravitas as the mainstream authors who don’t write novels about crime and murder.”

Penzler has received two Edgar Awards from the Mystery Writers of America: one for the Encyclopedia of Mystery and Detection in 1977 and another for The Lineup in 2010. The MWA also selected him for the prestigious Ellery Queen Award in 1994 and the coveted Raven, its highest nonwriting honor, in 2003.

Over the years, Penzler has seen readers’ attitudes toward mysteries change.

“People used to walk into my bookstore and say they were buying mystery books for an uncle or a nephew,” he says. “Now they come in because they want to explore this genre themselves.”

Mecca for mystery lovers

Penzler’s reputation as a mystery-fiction guru has attracted global attention among leading crime writers, movie makers, television producers, and even law-enforcement officials.

Penzler is frequently called upon by Hollywood studios to help their creative teams come up with ideas for new movies and to read scripts. In 2002, he was invited to be the guest host of Turner Classic Movies’ Month of Mysteries.

In fact, there’s no telling who will cross the threshold of the Mysterious Bookshop on any given day.

Over the years, such well-known literary figures as Stephen King, James Patterson, Richard Russo, and Norman Mailer have spent hours at the bookstore, ferreting out ideas, inspiration, and background for their best-selling novels. Movie personalities, including Whoopi Goldberg and Bill Murray, have been spotted in the stacks from time to time. So have television stars from such popular TV series as “Law & Order” and “Baywatch.”

Penzler has never forgotten the day Peter Falk ― who played the eccentric homicide detective, Lieutenant Columbo, in the television series “Columbo” (1968-2003) ― paid a visit to the Mysterious Bookshop when it was still on 56th Street.

At the time, Falk was snooping around for crime novels with movie-making potential. “Columbo” TV producers Richard Levinson and William Link recommended he stop in and see their old friend, Otto Penzler.

“Peter showed up in his rumpled raincoat and, honest to gosh, the button was buttoned in the wrong buttonhole ― you can’t make this up,” Penzler laughs. “I don’t know whether it was part of his schtick or he just couldn’t help it.”

The exchange between the two went something like this:

“You Otto?

“Yes.”

“I’m Peter Falk. The actor.”

“Yes, I know.”

“Do you read all these books?

“Well, not all of them, but I’ve read a lot.”

“So, I’m looking for somethin’.”

“What are you looking for? A comedy? Do you want to be a cop or play a gangster?

“Otto, if I knew what I was looking for, I wouldn’t have to ask you. Oh, one thing, I don’t play aristocrats real well.”

Penzler with Lee Child

Otto Penzler hosts a book signing for Lee Child at the Mysterious Bookshop. (Image courtesy of Otto Penzler.)

Falk finally settled on a couple of crime novels, including The False Inspector Dew by Peter Lovesey, which he later optioned to make a movie. When it came time to pay, the actor reached into his back pocket and pulled out a moth-eaten wallet.

“Peter found one check that looked like it had been folded in his wallet for five years,” Penzler says. “He also pulled out a bill for something and said, ‘Oh, this is from last year. I’ve got to pay it.’ The whole thing was like a comedy skit.”

Penzler himself was swept into a real-life crime drama once after he was contacted by a shady character in the U.K., who was trying to unload a valuable first-edition James Bond novel for $50,000.

Smelling a rat, Penzler phoned his close friend, a former New York City police commissioner, who put him in touch with the FBI Art Theft Program. Penzler was instrumental in helping the agents set up a sting operation and nab the suspect when he landed at JFK International Airport to consummate the illicit sale.

Hooked on books

The Mysterious Bookshop

The Mysterious Bookshop, Tribeca. NYC. (Image courtesy of Otto Penzler.)

As a kid growing up in the Bronx, Penzler was an avid reader. But he never cracked the cover of a single mystery book. Instead, his tastes ran more toward science fiction, nonfiction, and great literature.

In 1959, Penzler enrolled at U-M, where he majored in English. However, the newcomer to Ann Arbor spent most of his free time covering Wolverines sports as a reporter for The Michigan Daily.

“I remember going to football games in the Big House,” says Penzler, who was a good athlete and enjoyed campus life. “As freshmen, we had to live in a men’s residence hall, because all the dorms were segregated by gender. We’d go to mixers to meet girls from the women’s halls and dance with them. It was so innocent compared to today.”

Back to the Bronx

After graduation in 1963, Penzler returned to the Bronx, rented an apartment, and applied for a job at The New York Daily News, which had the city’s best sports section ― but no immediate openings. To pay the rent, he took a job at Women’s Wear Daily, rewriting press releases for $100 a week.

Three weeks later, the Daily News offered him a position as a copy boy for $42 per week. Penzler jumped at the opportunity.

“I was so excited,” he recalls, “but my mother thought I’d totally lost my mind!” Eventually, he worked his way up to become a sportswriter who covered collegiate and professional sports in the New York area.

The Big Book of Reel Murders cover

(Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, 2019)

“Going to a football game at Columbia University where there were probably 5,000 spectators felt like bush-league stuff compared to seeing 101,000 Wolverines fans in the Big House,” Penzler says.

The year 1963 was life-changing for another reason.

It was the year Penzler picked up his first mystery book, The Complete Sherlock Holmes. He was immediately hooked on mysteries and went on to read crime novels by Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, and John Dickson Carr. Then he discovered Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett.

“I realized this is pretty serious literature, which is every bit as well-written and socially involved as Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and other Golden Age writers,” Penzler comments. “I became a great devotee.”

In 1969 Penzler took a job as publicity director at ABC Sports, and then left in 1973 to work for two years with Emmy award-winning newscaster Harry Reasoner as a writer for “The Reasoner Report.”

The plot thickens

Penzler’s professional career in the mystery world began in 1975 when he launched the Mysterious Press from his Bronx apartment.

“My career was kind of an accident,” he says. “One thing followed another.”

A lucky break thrust him into the limelight of the mystery-fiction publishing world.

At the time, Penzler was freelancing for Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and writing columns about famous mystery novelists. He arranged an interview with another U-M graduate, Kenneth Millar, who wrote under the pseudonym Ross Macdonald and had won widespread acclaim for his Lew Archer detective novels.

The two met at Millar’s cabana overlooking the beach in Santa Barbara, Calif.

“Ross was achingly shy and answered monosyllabically,” Penzler remembers. “It was torture at first. But I have to say the interview improved a lot after his second Scotch. He loosened up, and we had a wonderful conversation.”

Then Penzler made a daring move. He asked Millar if he could publish a book of Lew Archer short stories through the Mysterious Press. To Penzler’s delight, the author not only gave him permission to publish the book, but also agreed, after much arm-twisting, to write an introduction about Lew Archer, the fictional character.

Once the New York Times ran the Lew Archer introduction and a book review, Penzler’s world exploded. Orders poured in from everywhere.

Paperback writers

He moved out of his Bronx apartment and bought a five-story brownstone on 56th Street, right behind Carnegie Hall, with a $2,000 down payment ― his entire life savings. The Mysterious Bookshop opened on April 1979 on Friday the 13th.

One of Penzler’s most successful publishing proteges turned out to be crime-fiction novelist James Ellroy, who grappled with drinking, drugs, and vagrancy in his youth before he turned to writing about 1940s-era police corruption in Los Angeles.

“When James came to me, he had only one paperback published,” Penzler says. “We became friends, and I became his publisher. We worked a lot on his books. He needed and wanted editorial direction. Eventually, he became my first New York Times best-seller with The Black Dahlia (1987).”

By the time the film adaptation of Ellroy’s epic noir, L.A. Confidential (1990), came out in 1997, the author’s career trajectory was firmly established. And the Mysterious Press was on a winning streak that lasted through 1989 when Penzler sold his publishing enterprise to Warner Books.

The last chapter

At age 78, anyone else might be tempted to rest on their laurels after four decades of stellar success. But not Otto Penzler. In fact, he’s already moving ahead with several new ventures.

“I’ve started another publishing company, Scarlet, which will be devoted to psychological and domestic suspense,” he says. “And I’ve just reacquired the Mysterious Press, which has been an imprint at Grove/Atlantic for the last nine years. Now I will be running it and publishing books myself.”

Sounds like the perfect ending. Or more likely, beginning.

(Top image: Otto Penzler entertains mystery fans in his Mysterious Bookshop prior to the COVID-19 shutdown. Penzler provided the image to Michigan Today.)

Comments

  1. Adj prof retired Zelman - 20th century

    Great writing about the Mysterioso locale! It could be that the residence being so close to Carnegie influenced the success of the enterprise! Live long & prosper!

    Reply

    • Claudia Murphy - BA '67 MA '74 PH.D.'89

      Very interesting and informative article. I want to meet Otto now & stay for hours in his bookstore.

      Reply

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