... with Otto Penzler on Mystery yesterday and today in the USA and the World (Part 2)

Otto Penzler

... with Otto Penzler on Mystery yesterday and today in the USA and the World (Part 2)

Zur deutschen Version

Otto Penzler, (born 1942) is one of the experts not only among the US-mysteryexperts. He is not only mysteryfan but also acted as publisher, editor and trader (he owns “The Mystery Bookshop”, presumably the biggest Mysterybookshop worldwide which he opened June 13th 1979).

In 1977 he won the “Edgar Award” (the Oscar of Mystery) of the “Mystery Writers of America” for his book “The Encyclopedia of Mystery and Detection” in the Category “Best Critical/Biographical Work”.

During the Frankfort Bookfair 2007 Bettina Meister discovered his Pulpfiction Anthology (Vol. 1 THE CRIMEFIGHTERS , Vol. 2 THE VILLAINS and Vol. 3 THE DAMES) which we are lucky to call our own now. Thanks to the great help of Emma Ward of Quercus Publishers (looking forward to meet you at the Frankfort Bookfair this year, Emma), we had the chance to have an interview with Otto Penzler. Reinhard Jahn, owner of the website “Lexikon deutscher Krimiautoren ” (“Encyclopedia on German Mysteryauthors) supported us in this. Thanks for that.

In the first part of the interview we've talked to Otto Penzler on Mystery in the USA yesterday and today. In the second part we turn towards Europe (this includes Germany and Jerry Cotton) and ask for some references of the Master himself.

Zauberspiegel: You are an expert in detective-stories – how much do you get on European mystery stories? And the “normal reader” in the US – what about them?
Otto Penzler: Translated books have become much more successful in America in recent years, but most European (and I exclude England from Europe in this context) mysteries are not very good. This is not surprising, as there is virtually no history of mystery fiction in Europe, with the exception of France.
Germans, Spaniards, Italians and authors in the other countries, including the entire Eastern bloc, hardly ever wrote detective stories. In order for detective stories to be written, the writer needs a free, democratic society. This has not been part of the history of most European countries until relatively recent years. In Communist or Fascist states, the police are the oppressors and the criminals, so it would be unthinkable to call a policeman if you had a problem; most people tried to avoid any interaction with the police at any cost. There have been a few exceptions, such as Scandanavian mystery writers Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo, and of course the Belgian Georges Simenon, but they are anomolies.

Zauberspiegel: The major aim of the classical european detective is to solve the case and get the murder. For the “Hard Boiled Detective” it’s important to create atmosphere. What model do you prefer?
Otto Penzler: Not a statement with which I agree. ALL classical stories, whether by Europeans, Americans or British, are about the puzzle, about catching the criminal while solving the crime. Americans have been the primary writers of hard-boiled mysteries, but there are hundreds of American writers of traditional whodunnits.
When I was young, I very much preferred the classical, traditional mysteries of Agatha Christie, Rex Stout, Ellery Queen, Erle Stanley Gardner, John Dickson Carr, etc.
In later years, I really want to read the best writers, who rarely write this kind of book, as they concentrate instead on atmosphere, as you say, but also characterization in the sense that more emphasis is placed on why the crime was committed, rather than who did it. This emphasis on psychological investigation, as well as on literary style, is now more pleasurable to me.

Zauberspiegel: What do you think about Swedish authors like Henning Mankell and his superintendent Wallander?
Otto Penzler: I very much like the work of Henning Mankell and his character, but I can't read too many without reading other books in between. Like Sjowall and Wahloo, and virtually every other Swedish writer who ever lived, they are very similar to each other--very, very Swedish, with too much alcohol, too much cold, too much darkness, too much depression and unhappiness. I'm much too happy as a person to want to read too much of this.

Zauberspiegel: Donna Leon, an italian author who lives in the US and writes detective stories that are set in Venice, is an all-time bestseller and is being produced for TV. How popular is she in the US?
Otto Penzler: Donna Leon is the opposite of what you say. She is an American author who lives in Venice, where the books are set. She has always, for some reason, been more popular in Europe than in America, partly because she wouldn't allow her books to be published here for some years. Once she came back into print, she has become very popular, though not (yet) the giant bestseller that she is in Europe. The same was true of Patricia Highsmith, who never sold well in the U.S. but was huge in German-speaking countries.
Why this is so, I cannot say.

Zauberspiegel: Are you familiar with the German mysteryscene? If you are, what do you think about it? Are German detective stories popular in the States?
Otto Penzler: There is a German mystery scene? News to me.
No, German mysteries are not popular in the U.S. In fact, they are unknown.

Zauberspiegel: We experience a local phenomenon in Germany since 1954. There is a serial on an FBI-agent (called G-man Jerry Cotton) published each week (with a total of 2.700 titles) in the so called “Heftroman” (this is some sort of dime novel). Have your ever heard about this? What do you think about it?
Otto Penzler: I think one Jerry Cotton book was published in America, as a paperback original. It was unsuccessful. But we have had the same type of paperback originals published here, including Nick Carter, a "house name" used by numerous writers, who had more than 200 titles. I imagine they are similar to Jerry Cotton. While I know little of this specific series, there have, historically, been numerous similar series, both in England and the U.S. (and possibly elsewhere). They do not cause cancer or genocide. They do not measurably increase the brilliance of the language, either.

Zauberspiegel: High Tech series such as CSI have almost displaced the classical agent. What do you think about this development?
Otto Penzler: I saw one episode of CSI. I believe I have seen them all, as a result. These shows have nothing to do with humanity, nor of originality, and so don't interest me.

Zauberspiegel: These high-tech-series live by cuts in the style of video-clips, cool talking dominates over elaborate dialogue. Will the classical agent or the Hard Boiled Detective come back one day?
Otto Penzler: The hard-boiled detective and the classical agent have never gone away. They are romantic figures, the lone "knight," as Chandler described him, who battles against all odds. This is a part of literature (if not detective literature) since the beginning. There are few authors more successful than Parker, Crais, Dennis Lehane, Sue Grafton and many others--all of whom write about private eyes, and even some writers of policemen, such as Connelly, Jeffery Deaver, James Patterson and John Sanford, use their cops in almost the same way as a private eye, mostly working alone. And, as for agents, when do you think James Bond went away?

Zauberspiegel: In books, TV and cinema serialkillers take a vast space. Do you think there will be an end to this trend since it seems to consist mainly of stereotypes meanwhile.
Otto Penzler: Even though there always variations on the serial killer novel, mainly by having the villian commit more and more horrific crimes, or more eccentric and bizarre crimes, or greater numbers of crimes, I think the number of new titles seems to be levelling off and even diminishing in the last few years. This is not a terrible thing. Remember 15-20 years ago when EVERY book seemed to be about drugs and drug lords and drug deals gone wrong, etc. There aren't too many of those any more, either. Also not a terrible thing.

Zauberspiegel: What topic would you like to see produced in film?

Otto Penzler: In film, I would like to see more clear battles between Good and Evil, and I want Good to triumph.

Zauberspiegel: To your opinion: What will the trends in TV and cinema?
Otto Penzler: I've never been able to tell the future, I'm sorry to say. I would have bought Microsoft stock. It seems to me that more and more films rely to an ever greater degree on special effects, which I like in fantasy films, but not very much in anything involving human drama. But Hollywood has never asked my opinion, so I imagine we'll see more special effects, bigger explosions involving ever greater number of cars, and removing the audience from anything resembling genuine emotion a little more each year, until audiences will be the perfect zombies that filmakers seem to want.

Zauberspiegel: Is there a short story one should read by all means?
Otto Penzler: It is possible that Raymond Chandler's greatest short story is "Red Wind," so I would be happy to recommend it to anyone. Also, if I can have a second one, any of the first dozen or so of the Sherlock Holmes stories.

Zauberspiegel: What novel?
Otto Penzler: No one needs me to recommend THE MALTESE FALCON or THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES, both of which are perfect. For something slightly more obscure, go to Ira Levin's A KISS BEFORE DYING or Thomas H. Cook's RED LEAVES.

Zauberspiegel: What TV-serial?
Otto Penzler: HILL STREET BLUES, NYPD BLUE and LAW AND ORDER  are great, great TV series.

Zauberspiegel: What movies?
Otto Penzler: When I wrote a book titled THE 101 GREATEST FILMS OF MYSTERY AND SUSPENSE, I ranked the films in order of preference, so I'd go with the No.

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