Otto Penzler and the History of Mystery

October 14, 2009

Otto Penzler, editor extraordinaire, is a name well known among mystery aficionados. He was the founder of The Mysterious Press, editor of numerous collections of suspense fiction (among them the iconic Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps), and for the past thirty-one years, has been the proprietor of New York City’s The Mysterious Bookshop. Each year, Penzler commissions a short story from one of the many authors he knows (and he knows virtually everybody, it would seem). The story has three requirements: it must be a mystery, it must take place over the Christmas season, and The Mysterious Bookshop must be the scene of some of the action. This year, in a flash of brilliance, Penzler got not one writer, but twenty-two, to contribute to his holiday effort, and the result is a thick volume entitled The Lineup: The World’s Greatest Crime Writers Tell the Inside Story of Their Greatest Detectives. The list of contributors is, in a word, staggering: Ken Bruen, Lee Child, Lincoln Child, Michael Connelly, John Connolly, Robert Crais, Jeffery Deaver, Colin Dexter, John Harvey, Stephen Hunter, Faye Kellerman, Jonathan Kellerman, John Lescroart, Laura Lippmann, David Morrell, Carol O’Connell, Robert B. Parker, Ridley Pearson, Anne Perry, Douglas Preston, Ian Rankin, and Alexander McCall Smith. Whew!

Each of the authors takes a markedly different approach from his colleagues: Robert B. Parker stages a fictional interview featuring Spenser, his girlfriend Susan, and Susan’s friend, prospective author Amy Trent. The three chat in a Boston cafe while Amy asks probing questions about Spenser’s character. The interview, as with the Spenser stories, is told in the first person of the protagonist; the repartee is, well, Spenserian: “It’s pretty hard for me not to be cute,” I said. Susan rolled her eyes slightly. “He can learn, but he can’t be taught,” Susan said.

By contrast, Alexander McCall Smith’s essay reads like a sun-drenched memoir of idyllic days spent in developing Africa. He speaks with a genuine fondness for the denizens of Botswana, and in particular one Precious Ramotswe, the “traditionally built” (read: chubby) heroine of The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency. Remarkably, the book was not an easy sell. Publishers were looking for “grit” and “edge”, neither of which would be found in close proximity to Mma Ramotswe. In the end, the book was picked up by a small publishing company, and only fifteen hundred books were printed in the first run. (Can you imagine what a first edition might bring on eBay?) At a launch party thrown by a group of Smith’s friends, “nobody, including me, thought that this book would go anywhere in particular. Who would be interested in reading about the life of a woman in Botswana…?” Who indeed!

Robert Crais’ take on the assignment is exceptionally clever, a first-person dialog between the author and his wisecracking LA hero, Elvis Cole.
Cole: “You’re making more off my cases than I do. Look how many emails you get through the website, people asking how come I always work for free.”
Crais: “You don’t work for free. Peter Alan Nelsen paid you a load.”
Cole: “And how long ago was that, Lullabye Town?”
Crais: “Jonathan Greene paid you up front in Sunset Express. So did Judy Taylor in Voodoo River. Besides, I’ve only chronicled ten of your cases…”
Cole: “Chronicled. Am I being chronicled?”
Crais: “ I only cover your interesting cases. Our readers wouldn’t care about the boring dogs you work to pay the bills.”

And so it goes, for 400+ pages, in which the avid mystrophile can peruse the back stories of two-and-twenty of his/her favorite characters. Kudos to editor Penzler, and holiday wishes for another thirty-one successful years of mystery and suspense in store (The Mysterious Bookstore, that is).

The Lineup: The World’s Greatest Crime Writers Tell the Inside Story of Their Greatest Detectives; Otto Penzler; Little, Brown; ISBN 9780316031936; 416pp; $25.99