Monday, February 03, 2020

Errors of curation – in Otto Penzler’s crime anthologies and elsewhere

[In my latest “Bookshelves” column for First Post, I play detective and try to figure out why editors and anthologists make mistakes; also, a small confession about "faking it" when I was editing The Popcorn Essayists]
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This column has a mild case of split personality. On the one hand, it is implicitly a tribute to a fellow literary traveller who has revitalised my interest in a genre I loved as a child. But it also uncovers some of the goof-ups made by this same person – a reminder that even diligent readers often fall into the trap of pretending to know more than they do, or over-relying on memories and distant impressions.

And so, to Otto Penzler, proprietor of The Mysterious Bookshop in New York, founder of the publishing house The Mysterious Press – and an anthologist with a well-earned reputation in crime fiction. Some of my most pleasurable reading in recent months has come from Penzler-edited collections: mammoth books such as The Black Lizard Book of Locked-Room Mysteries, The Big Book of Female Detectives, The Big Book of Pulps and The Big Book of Jack the Ripper. And I don’t say “mammoth” lightly. One of my fondest
memories as a young reader, a fan of the twist-in-the-tale mystery, was discovering short-story collections (Alfred Hitchcock Presents, many others) in an uncle’s basement library. But those were small paperbacks that could be finished in an hour or two. The Penzler anthologies bear roughly the same relationship to those books as Godzilla does to the gecko on your building wall.

Most of them are in the 1100-1200-page range, and these are large pages and small font (a novella-length story like Ellery Queen’s ‘The Lamp of God’ occupies under forty pages in this format) — which is one reason why each page is divided into two columns, the way old pulp magazines used to be. Some readers might find this distracting at first, but by the time you soak into a few of these stories – by such giants of the form as John Dickson Carr, Stanley Ellin, Dashiell Hammett, Patricia Highsmith, Fredric Brown and Robert Bloch – you’ll barely notice the weight of the book on your lap, or the number of words per page.

While Penzler’s introductions to early-and-mid-20th century crime fiction provide important context for new readers, this also puts a big responsibility on him: when we trust someone as an expert in a field, we want them to be informed as well as scrupulous. We don’t expect them to prevaricate, or contradict themselves, just because the “brief” for a book has to be met.

Exhibit 1: Blowing the Whistle

Consider two short write-ups – both about a 1948 movie based on a Cornell Woolrich short story. Introducing the story in The Big Book of Locked-Room Mysteries, Penzler says:

“Arguably the worst film ever made from any work by Woolrich is The Return of the Whistler […] so loosely based on “All at Once, No Alice” that it is barely recognizable and so leaden-paced that it is barely watchable.”

But here he is five years later, in The Big Book of Reel Murders:

“The Return of the Whistler is a good adaptation of Woolrich’s tale […] the suspense, especially in the first half of the film, is intense.”

What accounts for the difference between the two assessments? The likely answer is a cynical one: in the first instance, Penzler was providing his honest assessment of The Return of the Whistler (and one that is probably the majority view), but in the second case he was editing a collection with the subhead “Stories That Inspired Great Crime Films”. That description was too big a burden to place on this anthology anyway (a more accurate title may have been “Stories That Inspired Great to Mediocre Crime Films”), and Penzler doesn’t pretend that most of the films listed here were brilliant achievements. But working to a brief (and possibly with the demands of a marketing team), he is required to say something favourable about them – thus that weak-sounding endorsement “a good adaptation”.

Exhibit 2: The Case of the Dentist Who Wasn’t There

A situation where I had to do a bit of mental sleuthing – which is appropriate, given we are in mystery/suspense terrain. In his introduction to Ira Levin’s superb 1953 debut novel A Kiss Before Dying, Penzler makes this casual reference to another Levin thriller: “No one who has read or seen The Boys from Brazil can ever escape the memory of the scene in the dentist’s office.”

I was momentarily puzzled by that sentence: knowing The Boys from Brazil inside out, I knew there was no such passage in it. But as a movie nerd, I realised where Penzler had erred.


In 1978, the veteran actor Laurence Olivier, by then in his seventies, got a lot of praise (and an Oscar nomination) for his performance as the old Nazi-hunter Lieberman in the film version of The Boys from Brazil. Olivier’s other notable film performance of the period was as the villain, Szell, in an adaptation of William Goldman’s novel Marathon Man. It is this film that has a very disturbing (and well-known) dentist’s-office scene where Szell tortures the film’s hero with a drill.

Basically, Penzler had confused two late-1970s thrillers containing high-profile Olivier performances, displacing a scene from one of them into the other. But what this also indicates is that he either never read The Boys from Brazil or barely remembered it. And his writeup suggests similar carelessness when it comes to A Kiss Before Dying, which is the book he is introducing. I won’t give away spoilers here, but one of his plot descriptions is accurate for the film versions of A Kiss Before Dying, while being completely inaccurate for the novel itself.

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None of this takes away from all the good work Penzler has done as editor and curator. But these examples are a caution not just to editors but also to critics and teachers who are tempted to sound more knowledgeable than they are about a book or film. It’s a temptation familiar to most of us who work in those fields. In 2010, while editing a film-writing anthology, The Popcorn Essayists, I found myself fudging a bit when exchanging emails with a couple of the writers who were contributing to the book. If someone enthusiastically discussed their piece about – for instance – Hindi film noirs of the 1950s, I pretended to know more about some of the films mentioned than I actually did. Though I didn’t let any of this get into the book’s Introduction, the point is that it’s easy to compromise in these situations.

In any case, curation can be a thankless job at the best of times – I was reminded of this when I heard of the death last month of JRR Tolkien’s son Christopher. The junior Tolkien spent decades making sense of hundreds of pages of his father’s notes – the mythologies that are alluded to in The Lord of the Rings, when characters speak about the very distant past – and publishing such vital titles as The Silmarillion. That’s hard work, done with diligence, and naturally, in this case, a very personal project too. But many Tolkien purists didn’t like the idea of these hazy myths being given a final, “finished” shape, and Christopher got some criticism for creating a cottage industry around his father’s name – and for commercialising things that should have stayed in a writer’s private desk. It’s hard to win when you’re organising someone else’s work.
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[Earlier First Post columns are here]

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