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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).
Dashiell Hammett, Nightmare Town (First, publication Argosy, 1924), Dell, 1950
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
For the whole collection, see :