NEW YORK PUBLISHER, EDITOR AND BOOKSELLER’S TREASURES AMONG THE HOBBY’S BEST
Otto Penzler’s lifelong passion for mystery fiction began in the 1960s with The Complete Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle.
With little competition in the early days, Penzler began uncovering first-edition copies of detective fiction by scouring dozens of shops across New York City’s 4th Avenue “booksellers’ row.” His collection of detective fiction was an addicting yet affordable pursuit, and clearly ahead of its time.
“It was easy to find a half dozen first editions in collectable condition within my five-dollar-a-week budget,” Penzler says. “My primary drive was buying a book in the mystery world that I could afford. It was the pure joy of collecting.”
Now a giant of the New York literary scene, Penzler is opening his personal library to fellow collectors. Earlier this year, the Otto Penzler Collection of Mystery Fiction, Part 1, debuted in Heritage Auctions’ rare books auction in New York.
A 1929 first edition of Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest sold for $75,000, while a 1930 first edition of Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon sold for $35,000. A 1939 first edition of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, signed by the author, sold for $57,500.
Part 2 of the Penzler auction includes notable works from British authors, such as a 1913 first edition of E.C. Bentley’s Trent’s Last Case; a 1932 first edition of Anthony Berkeley’s Before the Fact: A Murder Story for Ladies; and a 1930 first edition of Agatha Christie’s The Mysterious Mr. Quin.
After devouring work by Christie, John Dickson Carr and Ellery Queen, it was Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett who convinced Penzler that crime fiction could be elevated to a place of parity with the best of American literature. In 1979, he opened the Mysterious Bookshop in midtown Manhattan, a business that supplied like-minded fiction fans – as well as his own growing collection.
“Every first edition that came into the store was compared against my personal copy,” Penzler says. “It was where I researched every week. I upgraded books constantly, being obsessed with having the best possible copy, as well as checking for variants, which I thought important for bibliographical purposes.”
After decades of finding new titles, and upgrading the ones he already had, he needed to build a massive library attached to his medium-size home, a bibliophile’s palace.
The resulting collection is what Heritage Auctions President Greg Rohan calls “the best and most comprehensive collection in this genre ever assembled. The Penzler auctions, which will cover two years, will showcase to the world Otto’s unprecedented collection.”
This article appears in the Fall 2019 edition of The Intelligent Collector magazine. Click here to subscribe to the print edition.