Book Review: The Big Book of Rogues and Villains

The Big Book of Rogues and Villainsedited by Otto PenzlerVintage Crime, 2017Legendary editor Otto Penzler spends a few paragraphs in the Introduction to his latest enormous anthology, The Big Book of Rogues and Villains, sketching out the differences between the two types of criminals mentioned in the book's title. The rogue, he tells his readers, is usually a gentleman, and his crimes are usually non-violent. He steals priceless diamonds. He wears ingenious disguises. He conducts daring midnight cat burglaries. The villain is a creature of an entirely different order: he kills people, either for gain or for the sheer pleasure of doing so. The Big Book of Rogues and Villains is fairly evenly divided between the two, and most of the stories reprinted here are exceedingly short, so readers who find themselves getting tired of the Gentleman Thief won't have long to wait before they're thrilling to Bloody Bob.There are famous names in the roster, of course: Jack London, Sinclair Lewis, O. Henry, Washington Irving, Bram Stoker (and one famous omission, so we have a book about fictional villains in which Professor Moriarty makes no appearance) and such modern masters as Erle Stanley Gardner, Max Allan Collins, and Donald Westlake. But one of the reliable joys of a Penzler Production is always the inclusion of names that are not only not famous anymore but vigorously obscure. Many of them were glorious hacks, churning out muddy rivers of crackerjack third-rate what-happens-next prose for quick money, and time after time, story after story, readers of this anthology will get the strong impression that Penzler is not only their biggest remaining fan but their only remaining fan.And he knows all the best little anecdotes – as has been the case with half a dozen of these anthologies, his page-long author introductions often vie with the stories they're introducing in terms of wit and readability. When, for instance, he's introducing Frank McAuliffe, author of four novels starring the English sleuth Augustus Mandrell (McAuliffe, Penzler tells us, was American and never travelled outside the United States), he tosses off the story of McAuliffe winning the Edgar Award in 1972 and telling the audience, “Ladies and gentlemen, you have impeccably good taste.”The fact that so many of these stories (there are over 70, and the book itself is 900 pages long) were written by broadly similar authors for broadly similar reasons in approximately identical conditions lends a certain air of similarity to the proceedings. Long-time readers of Penzler Productions, readers who've savored such mammoth tomes as The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps or The Big Book of Ghost Stories or even more intensely The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries, will be prepared for this, and it's to be hoped that newcomers will quickly adapt to finding a kind of common tone in these offerings, whether they come from the late 19th century, such as Arthur Morrison's “The Narrative of Mr. James Rigby,” or an entire generation later, such as McAuliffe's “The Dr. Sherrock Commission.” The Morrison opens like this:

I shall here set down in language as simple and straightforward as I can command, the events which followed my recent return to England; and I shall leave it to others to judge whether or not my conduct has been characterised by foolish fear or ill-considered credulity. At the same time I have my own opinion as to what would have been the behaviour of any other many of average intelligence in the same circumstances; more especially a man of my exceptional upbringing and retired habits.

And the McAuliffe like this:

Odd chap, this Sherrock. He was a medical doctor with a practice in Liverpool. His home, with its steel-shuttered windows, was located in the posh Clairemont section, Each day the doctor made his transit from home to office in the rear of a locked Rolls. The chauffeur of the Rolls, a barrel-shouldered young man named Ben Nett, carried beneath his left arm an ugly bit of iron manufactured in Belgium and containing within its contours seven steel-headed bullets.

Obvious blood relatives, in other words – but reliable (albeit slightly déclassé) stock. Penzler serves up one glorious adventure story after another in this vein, and about his own labors he's typically direct. “This large gathering of fictional rogues and villains is designed merely to give pleasure,” he writes. “Its a giant shelf-filler of what was once known as escapist fiction, before the term fell into disfavor.” Escapist fiction may be in disfavor, it's difficult to tell (after all, it wouldn't want to belong to any club that would have it as a member). But it's certainly in good hands, as long as readers can expect doorstop Penzler Productions on a regular basis.