Paint Me the Places You’ve Seen*

GPS systems have become almost a necessity in the modern world. You really don’t need to know the way to your destination anymore. All you have to do is enter it into the GPS, and a voice guides you from here to there. It’s an incredibly handy tool, but there is also something to be said for maps.

Especially if you tend to think visually, a map gives a real sense of the route to where you’re going. Maps can be beautiful, too (have you seen hand-drawn original maps?). And they give a certain perspective. And in crime fiction, they can be really useful n a number of ways.

Sometimes they provide clues. In R. Austin Freeman’s The Mystery of 31 New Inn, Dr. Christopher Jervis is serving as locum for a colleague when he is sent for to treat a sick elderly man named Mr. Graves. Strangely enough, Jervis is instructed to black out the windows of the carriage, so he won’t know where his destination is. In the interest of the patient’s well-being, he complies, but he thinks it’s odd. When he arrives, Jervis treats Graves, whom he suspects has had a drug overdose. He is returned safely afterwards and thinks it’s all odd enough that he’d like some input. So he asks his friend, Dr. John Thorndyke, for some input. Thorndyke does give Jervis some advice, but then there’s an outbreak of influenza, and Jervis is kept busy enough that he can’t pursue the case. When he’s sent for again, though, he decides to find out more. At Thorndyke’s suggestion, Jervis writes down every turn the carriage makes, and every change of road. Later, Thorndyke and Jervis compare those notes to an ordnance map of the area. Doing that allows them to work out where the house Graves lives in is located, and it’s very helpful in answering several questions.

Agatha Christie’s Manx Gold is a short story she wrote to help boost tourism on the Isle of Man. In the story, engaged couple Fenella Mylecharane and Juan Faraker take part in a scavenger hunt set up by Fenella’s eccentric Uncle Myles. According to his will, whoever finds the treasure he’s had hidden on the island will inherit his wealth. Fenella and Juan are pitted against other relatives, and it soon turns out that one of those people is willing to kill to find the treasure. Maps and other clues are a part of the hunt, which was linked to a real-life scavenger hunt. Four identical snuffboxes were hidden on the island; whoever found all four would win £100. Interestingly enough, although there is a winner in the story, no-one ever claimed the real-life prize.

Sometimes, maps are very helpful to the reader. That may be one reason that many Golden Age and traditional-style mysteries include maps. R.V. Raman’s A Will to a Kill, for instance, takes place mostly at Greybrooke Manor, in the Nildis area of India’s Tamil Nadu state. The property is owned by wealthy Bhaskar Fernandez, who’s taken the unusual step of writing two wills. One is to be executed if he dies a natural death. The other is to be executed if he is murdered. And Fernandez has reason to believe that he might be murdered; there’ve already been some attempts on his life. What’s more, he believes that the would-be killer may be a member of his family. Each of them could have a motive for murder. Fernandez invites seasoned private investigator Harith Athreya for a visit, with the idea that Athreya will investigate the matter if Fernandez is killed. It’s a very strange request, but Athreya agrees, and travels to Greybrooke Manor. He’s not there long when there actually is a murder. Part of the task of finding out who the murderer is involves working out where everyone was at the time of death. The reader is provided with a map of the house and grounds, in order to place the various characters. It’s an interesting use of a map in a contemporary traditional-style mystery.

The same could be said of the map in Martin Edwards’ The Hanging Tree, the fifth of Edwards’ Lake District mysteries. In it. Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) Hannah Scarlett and her Cold Case Review Team investigate when Orla Payne is found dead of suicide (or was it?). The victim had tried to get the team to investigate the twenty-year-old disappearance of her brother Callum, but Scarlett hadn’t taken the request very seriously, since Orla was drunk at the time. Now that this death has occurred, Scarlett is regretful, and she determines to find out the truth. In part to provide clues, and in part to orient the reader, there’s a map of the part of the Lake District where the Payne family lived. That proves useful as the different relationships and motives are untangled.

There’s a fascinating look at mapmaking and the uses of maps in Peng Shephard’s The Cryptographers. The novel features Dr. Helen ‘Nell’ Young, a cryptographer who used to work for the New York Public Library. Seven years ago, though, she was unceremoniously stripped of her job – by her own father, legendary cryptographer Dr. Daniel Young. Now, she works for a company that makes cheap maps. She’s glad for the work, but still hurts deeply at the ruining of what could have been a stellar career.  Then, she learns that her father has suddenly died of what looks like a heart attack. There’s been a break-in, too, although nothing has been taken. Nell gets involved in all of this when the police question her about her father. Then, she finds something strange: an old, very cheap roadmap – the kind that gas stations would hand out. Why would her father have such a cheap map? And how is it linked to what happened? Before she knows it, Nell is drawn into a mystery with links to the past and to a dangerous secret.

Maps are a lot harder to do than people may think, and they can have some rich depths and history to them. They’re fascinating in their own right, really, so it’s no wonder we see them in crime fiction.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from REM’s Maps and Legends.

16 thoughts on “Paint Me the Places You’ve Seen*

  1. Really interesting post, Margot – I’d frankly often rather rely on a map than GPS as the latter is sometimes not that accurate… And I love a good map in a book – those in GA crime are always a treat, but I like ones in fantasy or sci fi books too!


    1. Thank you, KBR! And you know, I hadn’t thought a lot about it when I wrote this post, but you’re right about the maps in sci fi and fantasy books. They often lovely to look at, and they can be really useful. And the ones in GA crime novels are great and do add to the story. It’s funny; I find the GPS to be helpful, but not if I’m trying to walk somewhere. Then I would much rather have a paper map.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks, Becky, for sharing that interesting article! A lot of don’t think about that aspect of creating a story that has a good map with it, and the article lays it out neatly. Folks, take a look!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Margot: I really liked your post on maps. I thought of Three Pines which is not on any modern maps, not even Google. Then in A Great Reckoning an old hand drawn map is found in a wall in which Three Pines is at the heart of the map. Unfolding the origins of the map was astonishing. Louise Penny provided a wonderful description of maps as creations in which we are looking down from the heavens upon the earth.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the kind words, Bill. And thanks for mentioning A Great Reckoning. I like the idea of thinking of maps as creations; that’s what they really are. And some of them are absolutely beautiful to look at – they’re as much art as they are anything else.


  3. This post could not be more appropriate for me as I’m the map reader in the family. Hubby drives, I navigate. We don’t always end up where we planned to go but it’s always fun! We do have Satnav but very rarely use it. It’s silly but I can’t think of any maps in crime fiction (even though I’ve read The Hanging Tree) but am going after The Mystery of 31 New Inn and The Cryptographers. Fun post!


    1. Thank you, Cath – I’m glad you enjoyed the post! It’s interesting, isn’t it, how some people are navigators and some are not. My husband and I use our GPS when we travel, but we use one with a visual map so I can check where we’re going. As for …31 New Inn, that’s an interesting mystery that ties together a few weird incidents. The Cryptographers is, among other things, a look at mapmaking as both function and art. If you read these, I hope you’ll enjoy them!


  4. Always prefer maps to GPS – the lady in my GPS has a tendency to sound annoyed if I don’t do what she tells me! 😉 I always like maps or floor plans in books because I don’t really have a very visual imagination, so even if it’s well described I don’t really get a clear picture in my mind of where rooms are in relation to each other or street layouts in villages, etc. It’s a shame it’s gone out of fashion, although I see you’ve mentioned a couple of modern examples.


    1. Haha! It’s funny you’d say that about the GPS voice, FictionFan; my husband and I always say we can just see her eyes rolling and hear that sigh as she re-routes if we don’t listen. I’m sure she gets fed up with human error… 😉 I think you’re right about the value of maps and diagrams and such. People do find them useful for orienting themselves, especially in stories that really rely on that information. I wonder why more books don’t do that – perhaps it costs more to publish graphics like that? Who knows…

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Extremely interesting post. I’ve never thought of maps playing an important part in crime fiction before. I guess I have to read a lot more! Crime novels which revolve around maps are bound to be particularly interesting if written well. I know that they play a huge part in Fantasy fiction. Almost all the big books open with a map of the world. It helps with the worldbuilding and introduces an element of mystery methinks.


    1. Maps really are fascinating, aren’t they, OP? As you say, fantasy books often have very beautiful maps, but it’s also nice to see them in other sorts of books, too. And you’re right about crime novels that feature maps, too. That adds a really interesting layer.

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