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.