Maps on the Backs : Dell Books and the Cartography of Crime

 Hammett homicides Dell

(Click to enlarge)

With thanks to Benoit Tadié

The crime scene map is a  feature commonly associated with  1920’s  Crime Fiction.  Detective novels of the Golden  Age tended to favour the spatial representation of  the mystery to be solved. The maps appended to the novels were data visualisations, as they presented the plot in one  easy (and appealing)  overview. Typically,   a locked room mystery, or a  secluded place mystery  (remote manor, island, lighthouse…) could handily be mapped on one page. Such cartographic paratexts not only accompanied the novel, but often preceding it,  they led into it. They were printed in the first pages of the volume, and at times on the cover itself,  inviting the reader to a symbolic and cognitive journey.  They  helped visualize the information relevant to the solution of the case presented in the book.  But at the same time, as they established a sense of location, they dematerialized it into a projection, and  an abstraction.  They became  thus metaphors of the detective novel as an intellectual construct. Imaginary, simplified spaces, stages for schematic problems, disconnected from referential realities.  This view was further corroborated by Chandler’s dichotomy, distinguishing between  the realistic, gritty, hard-boiled genre, which he and Hammett represented, and the delicate, but ultimately insubstantial, de-realized Mystery genre incarnated by Christie, Carr, Sayers and co.   Associated  with  golden age detective fiction,  maps would then paradoxically seem, from this point of view too,  to indicate less referential substance, rather than more.

Still, such a  view would itself be reductionist.  First the historical and cultural remit of maps cannot be  confined to the Golden Age. They appear much earlier. In  Charles Felix –  aka probably  Charles Warren Adams (1833–1903)- ‘s – The Notting Hill Mystery,  first published as a serial in  1862. Second, it is well known that the  noir genre  succeeded well in reappropriating them  for its more realist narratives (Malet, Hillermann,  Mankell).

Nightmare Town Dell

Dashiell Hammett, Nightmare Town (First, publication  Argosy,  1924), Dell, 1950

Nightmare town

Third, their apogee was certainly elsewhere.  Not in England, but in America.  In American pulp fiction. In the books published  from the mid 1940’s to the  early  1950’s  by Dell Books, whose back covers were adorned with distinctive maps. The following post presents a selection  of some  of the 577 ‘Map Backs’, published in the Dell Books series, between 1943 and 1952

House of Darkness Dell 237 Shayne Dell 112 Reilly Dell 063 Hammett Dell

Fair Dell 389 Adams Dell 104 Wallace Feathered Dell 049Woolrich Dell

For the whole collection, see :


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