Otto Penzler Celebrates a Literary Icon with The Big Book of Sherlock Holmes Stories

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The title says it all: The Big Book of Sherlock Holmes Stories is the largest collection of Sherlock Holmes stories ever assembled. Edited by self-professed Sherlockian Otto Penzler, the book boasts 83 mysteries written by an incredible range of authors. From classic tales by Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to surprising additions by Neil Gaiman and Stephen King, the stories offer hours upon hours of entertainment for both new fans and Baker Street Irregulars alike.

Paste caught up with Penzler to chat about his introduction to the world of Sherlock Holmes, why he included terrible stories by Doyle’s contemporaries and Doyle’s decision to kill his beloved character.

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1bigsherlockbookcover.jpeg Paste: What made you want to edit The Big Book of Sherlock Holmes Stories?

Otto Penzler: I have been a Sherlockian, a member of the Baker Street Irregulars, for more than four decades. I have a big collection of Sherlock Holmes first editions. So I’ve been a great fan of Sherlock Holmes for many years. I’ve edited a lot of other anthologies, but in a lot of ways, this is the book I was meant to do.

Paste: As a fan for so many years, what stories did you know you needed to include?

Penzler: Since I’ve been reading Sherlock Holmes for many, many years, there were stories that I had read in the past and said, “I’ve got to read that again and make sure it’s as good as I remember it.” In most cases, they were, and I was happy to include them. I read between 400 and 500 stories for this collection in order to select those I felt would be the most interesting. There were some old friends that I was happy to see again, and there were some new discoveries that I hadn’t read before.

Paste: In the introduction to the book, you mention that you included some stories that are pretty terrible.

Penzler: In the introduction to each of those awful stories, I say that they’re awful so no one is surprised. I included them because they had historical significance. They were early, pioneering efforts in that era, in some cases by very famous writers. A good example to me is A.A. Milne, who is famous for creating Winnie-the-Pooh. I think his story is awful. But my French editor read it and thought it was really lovely and charming, so we have different tastes.

Paste: What are some of your favorite stories in the collection?

Penzler: It is a hard question, because out of the 83 stories, I probably don’t like six or seven. I probably love 25, and I like the rest. I’m very fond of the story by Edmund Pearson called “Sherlock Holmes and the Drood Mystery,” because I’m also a fan of Edwin Drood. The story by—most people won’t recognize his name anymore—Davis Grubb, “The Brown Recluse,” is very interesting. Davis Grubb wrote one of the great noir novels that become one of the great noir films, Night of the Hunter. So you really would not expect him to have written a Sherlock Holmes story. It’s very, very good.

I also like the stories that involve Raffles. Raffles was a famous character in Victorian and Edwardian times who was a gentleman jewel thief. And there are stories in here by Barry Perowne and Hugh Kingsmill that feature Raffles, so I was very happy to include those, too.

Paste: I was surprised to learn that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wasn’t as fond of Sherlock Holmes as you would expect. He killed the character off because he thought it wasn’t great literature.

Penzler: He liked the character well enough in the beginning, but everybody wanted more Sherlock Holmes stories from him. And he thought his more important work was his historical novels—stories that a lot of people would find slow going these days, things like Micah Clarke and The White Company. He thought that because the Sherlock Holmes stories were so easy for him to write, they were less literary and his other books were more important. Readers felt the exact opposite.

The only way he could deal with stopping the stories was to kill Sherlock Holmes. At the end of the second short story collection, he throws him over the Reichenbach Falls in a struggle with Professor Moriarty. But the demand was so great, and the uproar from people who were angry with him was so tremendous, that he had to bring him back. And he did in one of the greatest mystery novels of all time, The Hound of the Baskervilles.

Paste: Do you have a favorite Sherlock Holmes story by Doyle?

Penzler: I do, and I love it most for a very personal reason. It was the first Sherlock Holmes story I read: “The Red-Headed League.” It was in an anthology of short stories that I read when I was about 10 years old. I read it in school in a library class, and the bell rang before the ending. It drove me insane until I could get back there the next week to read the story. That story always resonated with me.

Paste: What collection are you working on next?

Penzler: The next “big book” is The Big Book of Jack the Ripper. It’s about one-quarter true crime stories, and I also commissioned some new stories by famous writers, as well as the usual fiction depictions of the crimes and the murders.

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