Farewell, My Lovely Book Collection

Otto Penzler has been amassing pristine first editions of crime novels for more than 50 years. No more.

Mike Ramsey
February 28, 2019 - 3:03 pm

(WBBM NEWSRADIO) -- For Otto Penzler, the great aficionado of crime fiction, it's The Big Kiss Off.

The longtime publisher and proprietor of New York's The Mysterious Bookshop has parted ways with his exceptional collection of first editions, which he began amassing in the mid-1960s. His personal library grew to house 55,000 mystery, detective and crime books, but the volumes have been whisked away for sale at auction.  

This week, Heritage Auctions sells the first wave of the really good and valuable stuff, about 300 items that fall under the category of American hard-boiled literature (think Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon or Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep). WBBM Newsradio talked with Penzler by phone to discuss the pop-culture and financial value of these books and why he would want to part with them. Below are edited excerpts from that conversation.

Otto Penzler holding a first edition of the Dashiell Hammett novel "The Maltese Falcon." (Heritage Auctions)


WBBM: You just cut the cord, then, with all your books?

OTTO PENZLER: I had to. It was either all going to go or none of it was going to go, because dying the death of a thousand cuts was not something I could face. It was really depressing and hurtful, it was just awful. It was like cutting off my arms and my legs.

WBBM: What kind of market is there for these volumes?

PENZLER: It's a very big market. The great writers in that field -- Chandler and Hammett or James M. Cain, etc. -- are collected by people who collect modern literature, even if they don't collect mystery fiction. They're the greatest of the writers, and so there's a tremendous demand for them. It's the supply and demand thing that sets the prices on these. There's a very limited suppy and very, very large demand.

WBBM: The beautiful dust jackets of these editions are suprisingly austere, not lurid like the pulp magazine covers of the era. Why is that?

PENZLER: Most of the great ones were published by a very elegant publishing company, Alfred A. Knopf. They published Hammett in 1929 and then James M. Cain, The Postman Always Rings Twice, in 1934, and then Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep, in 1939. They would exercise a certain level of restraint. Pulps, remember, they were on newstands, selling for a dime, and the more garish (the cover), the better, especially if there were sexy women in jeopardy.

Heritage Auctions

WBBM: The book that may fetch the greatest price, possibly $60,000 or more, is a first edition of Dashiell Hammett's influential first novel, 1929's Red Harvest.

PENZLER: It's about one man -- in this case, The Continental Op, a private detective -- who goes into a corrupt town and tries to clean it up. The name of the city in which this occurs is Personville, but all the locals called it "Poisonville." Any time you have (the theme of) one man fighting a corrupt system, it can bring its roots back to Red Harvest.

WBBM: Why did you become so interested in reading detective fiction, as opposed to some other genre?

PENZLER: When I went to Michigan, I became a lit major and read the things that literature majors read -- Russian novelists and Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot and James Joyce and all those things that hurt your head when you read them. When I came back to New York, I decided I wanted to keep reading, and I wanted something that was fun. I started with The Complete Sherlock Holmes and started reading other mysteries and found that I really, really enjoyed them.

WBBM: How did you begin building your collection, 55 years ago, in the days before the Internet?

PENZLER: In New York, we had something called the Fourth Avenue Booksellers' Row, and it was only about eight blocks long but it had more than 60 used book shops. The Strand book shop remains in business, it's the only one that survived. I could go there -- some of them were big, half a block long -- and find books for 50 cents, 75 cents, even a dollar. I remember leaving certain books because they were $2. I couldn't afford $2 for a book.

WBBM: And you were ahead of the curve, in zeroing in on these kinds of first editions?

PENZLER: Clearly, there were many bargains to be had. There was very little competition. People were collecting other kinds of books. And the thing about mysteries that's really different: When people bought a book of poetry or belle-lettres or a well-known novelist, they would take really good care of the book. They would put it on the shelf. But mysteries were just read and passed around. People would bring them to the beach or eat fried chicken while they were reading it. Nobody took care of mysteries, which is why fine copies in really fresh dust jackets are so rare today.

WBBM: What's the biggest deal you scored, comparing your out-of-pocket cost versus the amount the book ultimately became worth?

PENZLER: Long before I had a book shop, I went to a library sale, and I saw an old book and picked it up and recognized the title, The Leavenworth Case, generally regarded as the first American mystery novel written by a woman. That book will probably sell for about $2,000 or $2,500 at this sale. It probably cost 50 cents or $1 -- I can't quite remember now.

WBBM: Did you know at the time it was valuable or could potentially be valuable?

PENZLER: It's really not the way I collected. I collected because I wanted to collect. I wanted to have a great collection, I really didn't think about the money, at all. If I could afford it, I would be happy to buy it, but it wasn't with thoughts of someday cashing in.

Crime novelist Raymond Chandler, center, in 1958. (Getty Images)

WBBM: Who wears the crown of hard-boiled fiction?

PENZLER: My favorite is Raymond Chandler. I don't think anyone ever touched him, although there is tremendous affection for Dashiell Hammett, who has real depth, real insight into human nature in a way that maybe Chandler doesn't have. But Chandler is a poet. He's just such a great writer, his use of simile is untouched by anybody writing mystery or non-mystery. Eighty years after it was published, people are still reading it for fun. Same with Hammett. Whereas a lot of people who won Pulitzer Prizes and other major awards back in the teens, '20s and '30s, nobody has ever heard of them anymore. They've been out of print forever. They don't have the lasting power that the great crime writers of that era do.