New York City is famous for many landmarks, including the Empire State Building, Rockefeller Center, the Statue of Liberty, and Derek Jeter. But among its greatest is one that many tourists miss: The Mysterious Bookshop. Their lives are poorer because of it.
The Mysterious Bookshop opened, appropriately enough, on Friday the 13th in 1979 and for the next 27 years was nestled in the heart of Manhattan, occupying a narrow brownstone on 56th Street right down the street from the stage door of Carnegie Hall. Since 2006, it has been located at 58 Warren Street, downtown in Tribeca. It is one of the oldest, largest and, dare I say, most important mystery bookstores in the United States.
The same can be said of its owner, Otto Penzler, who is quite important in the world of mysteries. He knows the genre and the fraternity of men and women who write in it. He has won multiple awards for his work as editor of mystery anthologies, such as the annual THE BEST AMERICAN MYSTERY STORIES and THE BEST AMERICAN CRIME WRITING. He has also edited a book that came out this year, THE BLACK LIZARD BIG BOOK OF BLACK MASK STORIES, which is a companion to a large book that came out a few years ago, also edited by Penzler, THE BLACK LIZARD BIG BOOK OF PULPS. Both are essential bookshelf items for those of us who love noir.
But Penzler is also a bookseller, an independent one in these days of struggling chain stores and “the 800 pound online gorilla,” which he is far too much of a gentleman to name. In the introduction to CHRISTMAS AT THE MYSTERIOUS BOOKSHOP, he writes, “Book stores have been places of worship and wonderment for me since I was a child and little has changed in the ensuing decades. One of the enduring thrills of my fortunate life is when visitors to my own store have kind things to say about it.”
So Penzler began giving something back to his cadres of loyal customers at the holiday season. Beginning 17 years ago, he commissioned many of the finest mystery writers of our times to do a short story and then published one a year in a handsome booklet. Then he would hand it out to customers during the holidays. The only thing the writers had to do was write a mystery, set it during the Christmas season, and have the action take place in or around the bookshop.
Now for the first time, all these stories have been published together. The result is CHRISTMAS AT THE MYSTERIOUS BOOKSHOP, a must-read for anybody who loves mysteries, not to mention a swell gift for the mystery fan in your life. It is worth having just for the lineup of writers alone. They include giants of 20th-century crime writing, such as Ed McBain, Donald E. Westlake, Lawrence Block and Mary Higgins Clark.
How great to read about Westlake’s famous burglar, Dortmunder, swinging out a midtown high rise after another narrow escape and then being forced to take refuge in a poker game taking place after hours in The Mysterious Bookshop with Penzler and friends at the table. (Penzler makes guest appearances in most of the stories, although he claims the character is purely fictional.)
The glory of this book is not just the excellent writing, but the fact that it runs the spectrum of mystery writing genres. Lawrence Block puts his series character Chip Harrison to work in the wonderfully titled “As Dark as Christmas Gets,” which pays tribute to the fictional Nero Wolfe and its great creator, Rex Stout. There is an exceptional Ed McBain story from 1999 called “I Saw Mommy Killing Santa Claus,” a chilling account of the loss of innocence and senseless violence, topics McBain mined brilliantly for half a century. Then there is a 2004 gem by Charles Ardai, founder and editor of Hard Case Crime and an award-winning writer in his own right, called “Cold Reading.” The story deals with the search for a long-lost manuscript from a mystery master, which is something Ardai himself has done over and over again at Hard Case Crime in recent years.
There are light mysteries, such as Mary Higgins Clark’s “What’s in a Name?” from 2009, and then dark, dark tales, like Jonathan Santlofer’s “The 74th Tale,” which gives a tip of the hat to none other than Edgar Allan Poe. So there, in back-to-back stories, you go from a heartwarming tale about grandma to a guy who enjoys experimenting with burying people alive. And both feature the bookshop, with Penzler as witness. For those who are more “Bah! Humbug!” types, there is George Baxt’s “Schemes and Variations,” which contains my favorite opening paragraph of the collection, if not the entire year:
“Christmas in New York. No longer the kind that once inspired Yuletide songs destined for a prominent place on ‘The Hit Parade.’ Yet after sixty-two years, the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree was still a big attraction. It towered over the ice skating rink, facing Fifth Avenue as proud as an aged whore who could still score tricks. A bunch of vendors catered to the holiday tourists, mostly women from all points of the country wearing stretch pants that emphasized their watermelon-sized buttocks. Two fisted women with a nosh in each hand, clutching a knish, a hot dog, an oversized pretzel, a soft drink, wearing backpacks or sporting oversized handbags stuffed with boxes of cookies, candies and sandwiches wrapped in tin foil, prepared for the famine they thought might overrun the city. They were unaware that a murderer was threading his way among them…”
Ah, Christmas in New York indeed! How can you not love it? I have not been to Rockefeller Center for quite some time due to the alarming crush of humanity featured there. But this might be a good year to go down to visit The Mysterious Bookshop on Warren Street. And if you can’t make it there, buy CHRISTMAS AT THE MYSTERIOUS BOOKSHOP. Mystery lovers will not be disappointed.
Reviewed by Tom Callahan on October 3, 2011