Overlooked No More: Dilys Winn, Who Brought Murder and Mystery to Manhattan
This article is part of Overlooked, a series of obituaries about remarkable people whose deaths, beginning in 1851, went unreported in The Times.
In 1972, Dilys Winn had an idea to open a bookstore that would sell nothing but mystery stories, but she knew nothing about the book business. She went to Doubleday and Brentano’s shops, jotted down the titles and publishers of the mystery books they carried, then called those publishers and put in her own orders. She found an empty storefront for rent, for $250 a month, adjacent to a parking garage on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and set up shop there.
When she opened Murder Ink — believed to be the nation’s first bookstore devoted entirely to the genre — she didn’t even have a window sign. But inside the store, compact though it was, one could find every type of mystery: British cozies, unsettling gothics, suspense thrillers, novels about hard-boiled detectives, police procedurals and even unpublished manuscripts — 1,500 titles in all.
Some books were crammed into wooden bookcases along paisley papered walls. Others were stacked in piles or scattered about next to jars of pretzels and candy. Flower arrangements hung from the ceiling, cats and dogs lay on the plaid linoleum floor, and presiding over it all was Winn, at her enormous partner’s desk.
Murder Ink’s early days came with some challenges, said Otto Penzler, who founded the popular Mysterious Bookshop in Midtown Manhattan in 1979. (It later moved to the Tribeca neighborhood and is still operating.) The Upper West Side was a bit dodgy in those days, he said, and the store was out of the way for Midtown shoppers — on West 87th Street between Broadway and West End Avenue. The store was officially open from Tuesday through Friday from 4 p.m. to 11 p.m. and on weekends from 1 p.m. to 11 p.m., but Winn came and went as she pleased.
“I might call ahead and ask if she was open,” Penzler said in an interview. “She would say, ‘I answered the phone, so yes, I’m open.’ I’d say, ‘I’ll be right over,’ but when I got there the door would be locked.”
Nevertheless, Murder Ink was a success. On its opening day, a reporter for The New York Times who had just moved to the neighborhood stumbled onto the bookstore. His favorable write-up attracted the attention of other news outlets like New York Magazine, The Daily News and Publisher’s Weekly.
As word spread, Winn discovered that her clientele had a voracious appetite. She arranged large pillow cushions on the floor for those who could not resist cracking open their books before they got home. For a nominal fee, she offered loans of hard-to-find and out-of-print titles. She also established a bustling mail order business, and on occasion carried rare first editions for collectors, though she preferred mass-market paperbacks. By the end of Murder Ink’s first year, the store had more than doubled its inventory.
To thank her friends and supporters, Winn held a St. Valentine’s Day Massacre-themed party in the garage next door with a menu that included Bloody Marys and a cake adorned with a revolver. (The handgun would become the store’s trademark, appearing on its blood-red awning.) She appeared as a guest on the TV game show “To Tell the Truth,” where celebrity panelists asked her questions to distinguish her from two impostors.
Winn enjoyed hosting events so much that she sold the bookstore in 1975 and began holding Sunday afternoon mystery talks (admission $5) at the Steinway Concert Hall on the Upper West Side featuring mystery writers, editors and other guest speakers. She organized a 16-day mystery reader’s tour of the United Kingdom, with sites of interest that included the Tower of London, Jack the Ripper’s London neighborhood and the London docks. Excursions to Scotland and Wales provided more opportunities to commune with mystery writers, crime reporters and, supposedly, ghosts.
All the while, Winn was feverishly working on her opus: “Murder Ink.” Published by Workman Press in 1977, it included offbeat essays by established figures and Winn herself (under various nom de plumes), along with character studies, photographs, quizzes and even a guide to “terrible edibles” one might avoid — or seek, depending on the motive. In 1978, the Mystery Writers of America conferred an Edgar Allan Poe award on Winn, and the next year she published a sequel, “Murderess Ink: The Better Half of Mystery.”
Dilys Barbara Winn was born on Sept. 8, 1939, in Dublin. A year or so later she went to the United States with her mother, Estelle, and older brother, Rodger, leaving behind her father, William Monroe Winn, an obstetrician and gynecologist who served in the British Army during World War II. He reunited with them in the U.S. in the mid-1940s.
Winn spent her early childhood in Perth Amboy, N.J., where she lived among extended family and attended public school. She then went to the private Baldwin School for girls in Philadelphia and enrolled in Pembroke College at Brown University.
In 1973, Winn told the Brown alumni magazine that she had read her first Nancy Drew novel in the fifth grade, but that she didn’t become a serious reader of mysteries until after college. Graduating in 1961, she landed a job as an advertising copywriter, making good money but hating the work.
She began planning her bookstore when she was 31. Even after Murder Ink took off, she continued to freelance part-time as a copywriter, reinvesting the proceeds in her business. And she wrote for publications, including The Times, for which she once categorized various methods of murder by ingestion and then reproduced recipes from cookbooks based on the dishes favored by fictional detectives.
In 1977, Winn partnered with Carol Brener, to whom she had sold the bookstore, and Carolyn Fiske, director of development at Mohonk Mountain House in New Paltz, N.Y., to mastermind an immersive whodunit at that resort. Held in the dead of winter, the event brought together 250 guests — including the science fiction writers Stephen King and Isaac Asimov — who were invited to observe, then solve, a murder staged by staff members. The electronic-music composer Pril Smiley, whose family owned and operated Mohonk, provided the score, while Edward Gorey illustrated program brochures.
The event proved so popular, it was repeated annually. But after 1982, Winn was ready to move on, and turned the venture over to the writer Donald Westlake and his wife, Abigail. The Mohonk Mystery Weekend, now produced by Murder Café, is in its 47th year.
In 1983, the actress Tovah Feldshuh played a fictionalized Winn on a short-lived television show called “Murder Ink.”
Two years later, Workman published a “revived, revised, still unrepentant” edition of “Murder Ink” with dozens of new entries by Winn and writers like Evan Hunter, Martha Grimes and Robert B. Parker. After traveling here and there, Winn surfaced in Key West, Fla., in the early 1990s and established a mystery bookstore there called Miss Marple’s Parlour. On the side she wrote hundreds of book reviews for Kirkus.
The Independent Mystery Booksellers Association established a Dilys Award in 1992, presented annually to the mystery title its member booksellers most enjoyed selling. It was discontinued after 2014, however, a reflection of the decline of independent bookstores. After changing hands and locations in New York several times, Murder Ink closed in 2006.
Winn left Key West without explanation (some say she was advised to do so by a psychic) and arrived in Asheville, N.C., around 2001. There, she taught adult writing courses and took odd jobs, including pouring tea for guests at a country inn.
Health problems eventually left her housebound, and she died of kidney disease on Feb. 5, 2016. She was 76. In accordance with her final wishes, her remains were donated to a medical school for students learning how to solve the mysteries of the human body.
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