The Otto Penzler Collection of British Espionage and Thriller Fiction

Any collector knows that the reasons behind a particular collection are often just as fascinating as the collection itself. Otto Penzler, proprietor of The Mysterious Bookshop in New York, and whose collection of British Espionage and Thriller Fiction comes to auction on April 8, 2010 at Swann Galleries, describes the painstaking process that led to his assemblage of mystery fiction.  

Otto Penzler on His Collection

“For more than 40 years, I have collected first editions of mystery fiction, defining ‘mystery’ very broadly to include crime, suspense, detective and espionage fiction. Although the quintessential impecunious collector (I earned $42 a week—$37 take-home after taxes) when I started, I had optimistically decided to collect English and American literature (all of it) when a wise old bookseller advised me to narrow my scope. I chose mysteries because I liked reading the books and because there was very little competition among collectors in those early days. Most of the bookshops that specialized in rare books (and even those which dealt in used books) were disdainful of genre fiction, so I had a reasonably clear field. 

In 1979, I opened The Mysterious Bookshop, where many thousands of books passed through my hands. Every collection that I bought was divided into two piles: one for the store, one for my private library, which was shelved in a very large office behind the second floor of the shop. Those shelves were built to hold about 9,000 volumes, which seemed more than enough for a vast collection. However, ‘just in case,’ I built them two rows deep and they filled rapidly.

Every time a nice copy of a book, whether important or obscure, came to the store, I compared it with my own copy and upgraded when necessary. Unlike most collectors, I had the opportunity to easily sell my lesser copy, hence the exceptional condition of the majority of books in my collection. Because my bookshop was in Manhattan, most authors sooner or later found themselves visiting, where I distinguished myself as an enormous irritant by asking them to inscribe my books. I was doubly fortunate to have the privilege of being friends (and occasionally the publisher) of such gentleman as Eric Ambler, John Gardiner, Ken Follett, Ted Allbeury, Peter O’Donnell and Elleston Trevor (Adam Hall), whose inscriptions have been especially precious to me.

Although espionage fiction has always been such a favorite sub-genre both for reading and for collecting, and British spy novels are among the greatest works in all the mystery genre, it is not really at the core of my collection so it seems time let it go. Someday, my equally extensive library of American espionage fiction will probably also be sold. I built a big house—no, let me amend that and say I built a big library with a little house attached to it—to hold the collection, which now numbers around 60,000 volumes. Even a large library runs out of room eventually, and the books have overtaken the space created for them. I still collect enthusiastically, adding titles every week.

Make no mistake: I love these books and already have had terrible separation anxiety. To see gaps on the shelves that hold my first editions of Ambler, Greene and Fleming is wrenching, but no more so (eccentric as it may be) than the loss of the incredibly scarce early titles by Le Queux, Oppenheim, Orczy, McNeile and even by authors you’ve never heard of, many the only copies I’ve ever seen in my 40 years as a collector and 31 as a specialist bookseller.

This is the first auction ever devoted entirely to this important literary genre. I hope sophisticated collectors can fill gaps that once seemed doomed to remain yawning spaces forever, while newer collectors will see books that make their hearts pound a little faster—as mine did so many times for so many years.”

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