American Mystery Classics, selected by Otto Penzler and published by Penzler Publishers

October 30, 2018 at 6:17 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

I think of Otto Penzler as the American counterpart of Martin Edwards. Edwards has long been devoted to advancing the recognition and popularity of British crime fiction. He’s also added substantially to scholarship in the field with such award winning tomes as The Golden Age of Murder and The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books. In 2014, he was designated a series consultant for the highly successful British Library Crime Classics series of reissues. In this capacity, Edwards has provided introductions to numerous novels in this series; in addition, he has edited several short story anthologies for the series. (He is also the author of the Lake District Series and the Liverpool Novels.)

Here are six examples of books from the British Library series. (I really loved Murder of a Lady – very atmospheric and beautifully written.)

Now we have Otto Penzler bringing us American Mystery Classics. Here are the first twelve entries:







The first six of these titles became available this month (October); the remaining six are due to come out in March of next year.

Otto Penzler is the founder and owner of the venerable Mysterious Bookshop, currently located in Manhattan’s Tribeca neighborhood. Wikipedia states: ” It is now the oldest and largest mystery specialist bookstore in the world.” The store hosts numerous book signings by distinguished authors; in addition, Penzler, like Martin Edwards, has edited quite a number of anthologies. This one just came out this month: .

I found this one, from last year, highly entertaining:

The site for American Mystery Classics has this to say, in the way of a recommendation:

Each book has been personally selected by Otto Penzler, whose more than forty years of experience as an editor, critic, publisher, and bookseller brings an unparalleled expertise to the line.

The Ellery Queen mysteries were actually written together by cousins Manfred B. Lee and Frederic Dannay. The name Ellery Queen is also given to the protagonist – a quirky character and some time author. He investigates various crimes but has no official standing to do so. The cousins’ collaboration began in 1929 with The Roman Hat Mystery and continued until 1971, the year of Lee’s death.

Last year I read Calamity Town, my first foray into the Ellery Queen opus. I thoroughly enjoyed it, for reasons enumerated toward the bottom of a post entitled Best Reading in 2017: Classic Crime.  Before me sits The Chinese Orange Mystery, which I just finished. Alas, it did not thrill me. I found the crime at once preposterous and uninteresting. More fatally, Ellery Queen himself does not appear in an attractive light. He comes across as a louche dilettante, proclaiming his insights in a drawling manner. The supporting characters often verge upon caricature. The dialog often attempts a sort of noir hipness but doesn’t quite achieve it. (Having recently read Raymond Chandler’s stellar Farewell My Lovely, I’m somewhat sensitive to this particular trope.) I yearned for an appealing love story, but there was none.

While giving due credit to the ingenuity of the puzzle at the heart of the novel, the Kirkus reviewer says the following:

It’s easy to see why Queen’s exercise in deduction has dated badly: Everything about it is creaky and artificial, from the incredible logistics of the murder to the alleged passions of the characters.

Sadly, I agree.

Other readers and reviewers feel differently. For instance, The Chinese Orange Mystery received a starred review from Publishers Weekly.  And I hasten to add that my enthusiasm for this new publishing initiative remains undiminished. I note that one of the March 2019 releases is a Perry Mason mystery by Erle Stanley Gardner. I sincerely hope that Otto Penzler will consider placing at least a few of Gardner’s Doug Selby novels in his list. There are only nine of them. I’ve read six and loved them.




  1. Xavier Lechard said,

    Ellery Queen went through several phases and incarnations over their forty-year career, and each one appeals to a different readership, even a different culture as I’ve found out over my twenty years online.
    Basically EQ fans fall into two camps, as irreconciliable as those in the Zdhanov Doctrine. On one hand are those that hold that the early “Nationality” books are their best work whereas on the other are those that think EQ really hit their stride with the Wrightsville books. The former in my experience are found mostly in the Anglosphere and in Japan, while the latter tend to be located in Continental Europe, most particularly in Romance countries like France or Italy. I guess it has to do with local conceptions of what a mystery should be and whether plot or characterization matter most.

    • Mark Ricard said,

      Do they? Fascinating information. The puzzle plot is more popular in the UK than Continental Europe. So it is not surprising that is the case. Why Japan prefers the puzzle story is a bit harder to understand. Any thoughts on this.

      • Xavier Lechard said,

        I’m not a specialist on Japanese crime fiction but Japan may be the only country in which the traditional mystery has managed not only to survive as a major force but to regain ground upon the social-realistic school. It is also one of the few in which the Old Masters such as Queen are still in print and widely read. I have no explanation for this, except that maybe the Japanese have better taste than the Westerners when it comes to mysteries. 😉

      • Xavier Lechard said,

        Regarding the popularity of “post-nationality” EQ in Europe, you may want to read this old article of mine in which I discuss the French reception of their work:

  2. Martin Edwards said,

    I’m pleased to be bracketed with Otto! And delighted you enjoyed Murder of a Lady. Thank you!

  3. Ken B said,

    I have never heard of Ellery referred to as louche. To be honest, it feels about as right as calling Poirot priapic.

    My term would be supercilious or hifalutin. Heedless.

    40 years ago I was firmly in Xavier’s first group, and loved the early EQ books. I recently reread The Greek Coffin, and found it … lamentable.

    Calamity Town is probably the best book as a novel, and is a solid enough mystery. Alas that phase was short lived, and the next period has some strong and strange religious overtones. The Origin Of Evil is the best of these, but flawed in a big way.

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