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Gently Mad

Otto Penzler’s Literary Lair

His plush private library houses the finest collection of mystery fiction By Nicholas A. Basbanes Nicholas A. Basbanes, author of On Paper: The Everything of Its Two-Thousand Year History, was recently awarded a NEH Public Scholar fellowship for a dual biography of Henry and Fanny Longfellow, to be titled Cross of Snow. His other books include About the Author, Editions & Impressions, A World of Letters, A Gentle Madness, Every Book Its Reader, Patience & Fortitude, Among the Gently Mad, and A Splendor of Letters.

Otto Penzler at home with his books. Nicholas A. Basbanes

One of the very first things bibliophile-for-all-seasons Otto Penzler wants you to know about the 58,000 books he keeps in a Tudor-style chateau in the Connecticut countryside is that it was not something put together willy-nilly by someone with a fortune to throw around on first editions.

The interior of Penzler’s home library in Connecticut. Nicholas A. Basbanes
A first edition of The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain. Nicholas A. Basbanes
A fist edition of The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett. Nicholas A. Basbanes
A fist edition of Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett. Nicholas A. Basbanes

“I am not a rich guy,” he insisted, even though the trappings of this graceful manor eighty miles north of Manhattan in bucolic Litchfield County—especially the triple-level library that at times suggests the soaring interior of a ducal chapel—would suggest otherwise. “This took an entire railroad car of mahogany wood to make,” he said of the exquisite shelves, fittings, and hand-hewn storage areas he was about to show me, all built to his design and specifications over a two-and-a-half-year period more than a decade ago.

That Penzler’s specialty is detective and mystery fiction should come as a surprise to nobody in the book world, given that he owns the Mysterious Bookshop in Manhattan, which he opened in 1979 as an outgrowth of the boutique publishing firm he had established four years before in the Bronx, Mysterious Press. The imprint’s authors over the years have included such heavyweights as James Ellroy, P. D. James, Isaac Asimov, Ed McBain, Kingsley Amis, Elmore Leonard, and Joyce Carol Oates. In addition to the publishing arm—now a division of Grove Atlantic—he is president of MysteriousPress.com, an electronic backlist of classic fiction.

He also has contributed personally to the field, having edited more than fifty anthologies, winning two Edgar Awards along the way, one in 1977 for the Encyclopedia of Mystery and Detection, and another in 2010 for The Lineup: The World’s Greatest Crime Writers Tell the Inside Story of Their Greatest Detectives. If ever there was an example of synergy in book collecting, this is it.

Penzler grew up in the South Bronx, graduating from the University of Michigan in 1963 with a degree in English. He worked as a copy boy for the New York Daily News, when it can be said that he began collecting mystery fiction. “I just loved to read, but I didn’t want to read James Joyce and Herman Melville anymore, so I turned to Sherlock Holmes and never looked back. My pay was thirty-seven dollars a week—of which I set aside five dollars for books.”

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