When I moved to New York City, there were three mystery-centric bookshops still in operation—now that (tragically) only one remains, you have to assume Otto Penzler of The Mysterious Bookshop must be doing something right. All four of my novels were launched at his store, but I first got to know Otto by making the Sherlockian social rounds as a fellow Baker Street Irregular, which generally involves black tie attire and varying amounts of fine whiskey. Otto is not only the proprietor of a famous book store, a publisher, and a member of a venerable Sherlockian institution, however; he has also, incredibly, edited more than fifty crime fiction anthologies, which leads one to believe that if there were such a thing as the Emperor of Mystery Anthologies, we really ought to have crowned him by this time.
An avid fan of Sherlock Holmes from his first reading of the tales, Otto’s latest project is the hotly anticipated Big Book of Sherlock Holmes Stories, an assembly that is not merely enormous but meticulously selected by a gentleman who has probably read more Sherlockian pastiches than any other living human. I was honored to be included when he chose “The Case of Colonel Warburton’s Madness,” which was also selected for Best American Mystery Stories 2010. As a voracious reader of non-Doylean Sherlock Holmes mysteries myself, I was equally delighted to see such familiar names as Neil Gaiman, P. G. Wodehouse, Leslie S. Klinger, and the two Kings (Stephen and Laurie R.).
After being asked to interrogate Otto, I happily agreed, and picked his brain throughout the following week. In this interview, I ask about the stories he chose, his process, and why Sherlock Holmes inspires such an unholy number of loving imitators.
Lyndsay: So I'll start with the softball: in a world flooded with Sherlock Holmes content at the moment, a felicitous time for both of us, what sets this anthology apart other than its marvelous size?
Otto: Well, size matters, but my experience as a member of the Baker Street Irregulars for more than forty years helps, too. I’ve been reading heavily in the Sherlockian realm for more than a half-century, so had a pretty good idea of what was out there when I started reading for the book. I also have a big library, so had access to lots of obscure parodies and pastiches. I read between 400 and 500 (I lost count) stories to come up with the 83 that ultimately made the cut.
Lindsay: Size doesn't matter that much if you don't know how to use it, in other words. Entirely agreed. Let me speak to your love of pastiches, which I've always agreed with and admired—there are plenty of purists out there who want their canon straight up, no sauce. What do you love about Sherlockian works that aren't Doylean? And how did you get into them?
Otto: Let’s remember I am talking about books, okay? The great awakening for my non-Doylean Holmes reading came with William S. Baring-Gould’s Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street, which is wonderful and also has a bibliography of other books. Somewhere I found Vincent Starrett’s “The Unique Hamlet,” which is wonderful. I started hunting for more and never stopped. While I generally prefer pastiches, there are parodies that should be required reading for anyone who even begins to consider him/herself a Sherlockian. At the top of that list, it should surprise no one, are the Schlock Holmes stories by Robert L. Fish. I will quickly concede that many parodies, especially very early ones (including a few in The Big Book of Sherlock Holmes Stories), are predictable and without nuance.
Lydnsay: I love parodies. “Sherlock Holmes twisted himself into a mobius strip, did a line of coke off the bearskin, rose to regard the street below us in mystifying sadness, turned to me and said gravely, 'Watson, there is a thread protruding from your jacket sleeve.'” Do you think we sometimes take ourselves too seriously regarding our tastes in literature? Sherlock Holmes was a hero for the masses, after all.
Otto: Humor is a serious business and probably the most difficult genre of literature to pull off. It strikes me as more subjective than anything that evokes a response. Most of us can agree on what induces sadness, or fear, but we don’t laugh at the same things. The French think Jerry Lewis is funny. Having the ability to make most people laugh, as Mark Twain did and Dave Barry does, is pure genius. Puns have been described as the basest form of humor, but I love them—and no mystery writer did it better than Robert L. Fish in the Schlock Homes stories (not to harp on them).
Lyndsay: As a former actor, I can say you're completely correct. What was your process in selection, since as you've mentioned you're so well versed in the arena?
Otto: Having edited more than fifty anthologies, the only process I know is to read widely and select the stories that I think are the best. “Best,” of course, simply means the ones I like the most. There are also a very few stories that made the cut because of their historical significance, not because they’re terrific stories, and I acknowledge that in the introductions that I’ve written for every story. Just as is true of the novels and short story collections I have edited and published at the Mysterious Press, originality and literary excellence (which covers a lot of ground) are the criteria that are paramount.
Lyndsay: There must be a number of stories that aren't widely read you're excited to include. Care to share any?
Otto: There is a sprightly tale by Kingsley Amis titled “The Darkwater Hall Mystery” that has seldom been seen, and an excellent story by the fascinating J.C. Masterman, “The Case of the Gifted Amateur,” that will appeal to a lot of readers. I had a choice of several stories by P.G. Wodehouse, and selected “From a Detective’s Notebook,” which you may not have seen before, and the same may well be true of Hugh Kingsmill’s “The Ruby of Khitmandu,” and “The Brown Recluse” by Davis Grubb (who wrote the very dark Night of the Hunter). There is a very short story by A.A. Milne, “The Rape of the Sherlock,” that has, mercifully, seldom been reprinted.
Lyndsay: So there will be plentiful tales to appeal to even the most avid pastiche reader. Have you ever encountered a bizarre concept, “Sherlock Holmes on the Planet Krypton” or some other such unlikely pairing, and been pleasantly surprised that the author actually pulled it off?
Otto: While I tend to favor traditional pastiches, set during the time that Holmes actually lived. I read scores of both pastiches and parodies in which a futuristic Holmes does battle in outer space and so on, and few worked for me. Poul Anderson’s classic “The Martian Crown Jewels” came closest, though it is, admittedly, not my favorite story in the book. Perhaps the most clever, tiny story was written by the great Sherlockian Logan Clendening, in which God calls on Holmes for assistance in heaven and has His problem solved almost instantly.
Lyndsay: That sounds fabulous. For you, what is the cardinal aspect that must be right if you're going to enjoy a pastiche? Style, character, plotting for example?
Otto: The answer is – yes. It takes all those things to make a good pastiche, just as it does for any work of fiction. A plot without characters that we care about will not engage us, just as brilliantly conceived characters who do nothing but contemplate their navels and whine about their ill luck are unlikely to hold our attention for long. The concept of style is a little trickier, since that is so dependent on the taste of the reader. The rich, fulsome, poetry of Raymond Chandler appeals to some, while the very spare, crisp lines of James M. Cain attracts others.
Lyndsay: Definitely. OK, this is a completely unfair question, but top five pastiches in your estimation? Or if that's too difficult, are there ones you read over again for pleasure?
Otto: You’re right—that is a tough one. I am a great fan of John Gardner’s Moriarty novels, and also the Anthony Horowitz books, especially the first one, The House of Silk. Among short stories, I love Starrett’s “The Unique Hamlet,” John Lescroart’s “The Giant Rat of Sumatra,” Manly Wade Wellman’s “But Our Hero Was Not Dead,” and a whole bunch of Robert L. Fish’s Schlock Holmes parodies. They’re not fiction, they’re biographies of a real person, but I very much love Starrett’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes and Baring-Gould’s Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street.
Lyndsay: I have a lot of theories about this myself, but why do you think Sherlock Holmes is a character who inspires so many authorial efforts from fans? Philip Marlowe is great, but he doesn't generate anywhere near this many pastiches. Ditto Hercule Poirot, and the list goes on. Michael Chabon, who as you know wrote The Final Solution, talks in his essay collection Maps and Legends about his first short story when he was a kid being a terrible Sherlock Holmes pastiche and concludes that, in a sense, all novels are sequels because we'd never write anything without having first been inspired by a great storyteller. What about Sherlock Holmes creates this alchemy where people are driven to write new adventures for him?
Otto: To respond fully would need a book, not a paragraph, because there are so many elements to it, like trying to explain why you love someone. Certainly the fact that Holmes was the very first popular detective character carries some weight, and that he was so enormously popular for such a long time (remember, the canon was published over a 50-year period). He was written about relentlessly in the early years, and emulated by mystery writers in droves, usually accompanied by reviews calling the character “the American Sherlock Holmes” or “the female Sherlock Holmes,” or “someone following in the footsteps of Sherlock Holmes.” The general ubiquity of the character or references to him early on, persisting to the present, played a major role. So did the fact that, in his peculiar way, he was likable. Though labeled a misogynist, he always had his one love, and treated women wonderfully, for the most part, in his adventures. He was reliable, and there is a great comfort in knowing someone who is not merely willing to help in a crisis, but actually able to solve the problem at hand. Add the nostalgia of a prettified depiction of an era of gaslamps, hansom cabs, and cobblestoned streets, and one could ask for little more. Also, the stories remain remarkably readable all these years later, when so many others written at the time now seem so stodgy and tedious.
Lyndsay: Yes, he was wonderful to women! Look how lovely he was with Helen Stoner, for example. There are countless instances of him being highly chivalrous. It makes me nuts when people try to insist he was misogynistic.
Otto: Me, too. Also that he was a drug addict.
Lyndsay: I think people get that impression as much from “The Missing Three-Quarter” as the early cases, but certainly people sling misconceptions about Holmes around all the time. Thanks so much for chatting with me about him and about The Big Book of Sherlock Holmes Stories! Is there anything I failed to ask you that you'd like to mention?
Otto: Autographed copies will be available at the Mysterious Bookshop and can they be ordered online at www.Mysteriousbookshop.com.
Comment below for a chance to win a copy of The Big Book of Sherlock Holmes Stories edited by Otto Penzler and get reading!
To enter, make sure you're a registered member of the site and simply leave a comment below.
TIP: Since only comments from registered users will be tabulated, if your user name appears in red above your comment—STOP—go log in, then try commenting again. If your user name appears in black above your comment,You’re In!
The Big Book of Sherlock Holmes Stories Comment Sweepstakes: NO PURCHASE NECESSARY TO ENTER OR WIN. A purchase does not improve your chances of winning. Sweepstakes open to legal residents of 50 United States, D.C., and Canada (excluding Quebec), who are 18 years or older as of the date of entry. To enter, complete the “Post a Comment” entry at https://www.criminalelement.com/blogs/2015/10/the-many-masks-of-actors-and-spies-pulling-into-berlin-station-olen-steinhauer beginning at 5:00 p.m. Eastern Time (ET) October 30, 2015. Sweepstakes ends 4:59 p.m. ET November 13, 2015. Void outside the United States and Canada and where prohibited by law. Please see full details and official rules here. Sponsor: Macmillan, 175 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10010.
Lyndsay Faye is the author of the Edgar-nominated Timothy Wilde trilogy, which has been published in fourteen languages. A passionate Sherlockian and Baker Street Irregular, she also writes pastiches frequently for the Strand Magazine and other publications. Her next novel, a serial killer re-imagining of Jane Eyre titled Jane Steele, is out in March 2016.