DOWNTOWN — In beginning to tell his life story Amnon Kabatchnik even speaks like one of the thousands of mystery texts that he’s devoured and mastered: “The whole thing started many years ago. Not the book itself, but the trigger to the book.”
Kabatchnik, at 84 years old, has directed a handful of hit plays, collected more than 75,000 mystery novels — most in storage but many in his Downtown apartment — and more recently combined his two loves into a series of award-winning books (totaling more than 2,500 pages and counting) dissecting and exploring mystery plays.
The whole thing started when American and British paperbacks with exciting, colorful covers, began to arrive in Israel, where Kabatchnik was born. With the aid of American films, the novels helped him learn English and he began to collect suspense fiction.
“It became a mania for me, collecting them,” he said. “Most people collect something. For me it became detective fiction, mysteries, anthologies in the drama, true crime, and so forth. At some point, I made the transformation from just collecting paperbacks of certain authors, into hardcovers, into first editions, into first editions in fine condition, into first editions in fine condition only with dust jackets.”
Five or six years ago, when he moved from Manhattan to his apartment on the edge of the Third Street Promenade, his priority was not the parking situation or the property taxes.
“Of course, my first consideration was how much books space is there for bookcases,” he said. “Always this is my first consideration.”
Books line his shelves and his work is everywhere else. The only spot not covered with stacks of scripts or research papers is the seat from which he writes.
“It started on one table,” he said. “It moved to another table in the living room, then the kitchen. Now, I’m at a table in my bedroom, actually, with the television off and on. My apartment is all papers.”
He’s old school, writing in longhand on yellow notepads and transferring it all to a computer later. Until recently he would type up the hand-written notes on a 1950s electric typewriter.
Kabatchnik writes often. In 2008 he dropped “Blood on the Stage, 1900-1925” (432 pages) and “Sherlock Holmes on the Stage” (216 pages). The “Blood on the Stage” series, now in its fourth volume spanning up to the year 2000, looks at important, compelling, or offbeat detective plays through the years.
Having knocked out a century of plays in less than five years, Kabatchnik is headed back to 480 B.C. and working his way up to the year 1600 in his next book. It starts with the “Oedipus,” who Kabatchnik calls the first detective, and ends with Shakespeare’s bloody “Titus Andronicus.”
After that, he’ll fill the gap between 1600 and 1900, where his first book began.
Santa Monica has a cameo in the 1975-2000 volume, published this year. Raymond Chandler’s “The Little Sister” was turned into a play in 1978 and Bay City, the author’s stand-in for seedy noir Santa Monica, is the site of a grisly ice pick-to-the-neck murder.
Kabatchnik is a friendly, gentle man so the real mystery, his daughter Adi Greenberg said, is why he’s drawn to these gruesome plays.
“It’s so interesting, because he’s soft,” she said. “Maybe it’s just his huge imagination where he’s always trying to figure it out in his head.”
Having directed classic detective plays, like “The Mousetrap” and “Dial M for Murder,” having written thousands of pages on stage thrillers, and being the owner of one of the largest private collections of mystery novels, Kabatchnik is a certified expert in his field.
Still, his favorite outcome is when he’s wrong.
“Usually I think I can deduce early where the thing is leading on to and in most cases I find I am right,” he said. “But, if I find something that surprises me, I’m elated.”