Shel Silverstein: Crime Writer?

The title of this page looks pretty strange, doesn't it? However, it really isn't, after thinking about it for a little while. Here's why:

In 1996, Otto Penzler, owner of several Mysterious Bookshops all around the globe and a general contributor to the mystery field, published "Murder For Love", a collection of short stories by some of the most popular mystery writers around, including Elmore Leonard, Faye and Jonathan Kellerman, and Mary Higgins Clark, to name a few. However, the last story of the group is written by Silverstein, done basically as a lark, or at least a favor to Penzler, who was a very good friend of his. Here's what Penzler had to say about Silverstein in 1996:

For anyone who ever dreamed of creating stories, or poems, of drawing, or writing songs and plays, but couldn't quite find the originality of expression that set them apart from the pedestrian, Shel Silverstein is their worst nightmare.

When he is asked to write the lyrics of a song, he needs no more than 15 minutes. A play might need an entire weekend. When I asked him to write a story for this book, he said, "Well, I've never written a crime story in my life. Wait, I have an idea." He never paused for breath between those two sentences. The fable that follows, not a story in a traditional form, is that idea. In his various homes, he has drawers full of songs and stories and fables and drawings and plays and poems that he's never gotten around to sending to his agent or his publishers. When he focused long enough to put together a book of his short pieces, it immediately made the
New York Times bestseller list. Not for two weeks. Not for two months. A Light in the Attic stayed on the list for more than two years!

Shel Silverstein offered to write another piece if I compiled another anthology someday. I said, "What if you can't come up with an idea?" He looked absolutely baffled by the notion.

To read the story from "Murder for Love", click here.

Penzler has since published two more anthologies, "Murder for Revenge" (1998), and "Murder for Obsession" (1999), both of which feature Silverstein contributions. Here's Penzler's blurb about Silverstein from "Murder for Revenge":

The phrase "Renaissance Man" tends to get overused these days, but apply it to Shel Silverstein and it practically begins to seem inadequate. Not only has he produced with seeming ease country music hits and popular songs, but he's been equally successful at turning his hand to poetry, short stories, plays, and children's books. Moreover, his whimsically hip fables, beloved by readers of all ages, have made him a stalwart of bestseller lists. "A Light in the Attic", most remarkably, showed the kind of staying power on the New York Times chart--two years, to be precise--that most of the biggest names (John Grisham, Stephen King, and Michael Crichton) have never equaled for their own blockbusters.

And there's still more: his unmistakable illustrative style is another crucial element to his appeal. Just as no writer sounds like Shel, no other artist's vision is as delightfully, sophisticatingly cockeyed.

One can only marvel that he makes the time to respond so generously to his friends' requests. In the following work, let's be glad he did. Drawing on his characteristic passion for list making, he shows how the deed is not just in the wish but in the sublimation.

To read Shel Silverstein's contribution to "Murder for Revenge", click here.

"Murder for Obsession", a hardcover that hit bookstores in March 1999, closes with a short story written by Shel entitled "The Guilty Party". It happens to be the very last written work published before his death and I must say, it's a neat little story, utterly bizarre. Think of a Judge with a King Solomon Complex, a defendant with an interesting line of defense, and a dash of baseball, and you might get an idea. I loved it. You can judge for yourself by reading it here.

In the wake of Silverstein's death, I had the opportunity to ask Otto Penzler for his thoughts:

Yes, I was fortunate to have Shel for a friend. I always missed his long absences, and now more than ever, knowing he won't be back. In one of our many long conversations, he yet again found exactly the right words for complex emotions, and I said, "You always find a way of saying things that I've never heard before." And he replied, "That's why they call me a poet."

Otto Penzler