Maps of Murder: Mystery Book Cartography and the Notebooks of Agatha Christie

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Some of us (judging from the comment thread on our best-of-YA-fiction post, a lot of us) may have spent an obscenely large percentage of our childhoods shining flashlights under covers and making ourselves carsick in order to finish just one more chapter in our favorite paperbacks. For one of us — ahem — the flavor of the week was usually a mystery, and we’re not referring to Encyclopedia Brown. It started with Nancy Drew and soon took a turn for the British, with Dame Agatha Christie and her subversive band of old maids, foreign detectives, and quietly scheming vicars. The next phase got a little pulpier: Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, wisecracks, whiskey.

Unfortunately the grand era of detective novel book design had long since passed, epitomized by the Dell Books imprint running from 1943 to 1952. During the nine year span, Dell would publish a staggering 577 books with “map backs,” an illustrated feature on the back cover that set the scene for the twisty plots within. After the jump, take a peek at some of our favorite discoveries.

Via Strange Maps, we learn that the map backs could depict anything from the diagram of a multistory building to the layout of a city or state – fictional or not – as the scene of the action. “The series published work by Agatha Christie, the grande dame of English crime literature; Dashiel Hammett, pioneer of the hard-boiled detective story; and Erle Stanley Gardner, creator of Perry Mason (writing as A.A. Fair), among others.” Our five favorite covers that we could dig up, in no particular order:

Alfred Hitchcock: Rope (#262)

Dashiel Hammett: Nightmare Town (#379)

Lange Lewis: Meat for Murder (Dell #135)

Helen Reilly: Mourned on Sunday (Dell #63)

Dashiell Hammett: A Man Called Spade (Dell #90)

Bonus link: Slate delves into the mystery of Agatha Christie’s rabbit’s warren of author’s notebooks:

Her less-than-refined writerly day began with finding her notebook, which surely she’d left right there. Then, having found a notebook (not the one she’d used yesterday), and staring in stunned amazement at the illegible chicken scratchings therein, she would finally settle down to jab at elusive characters and oil creaky plots. Most astonishing, Curran discovers that for all her assured skewering of human character in a finished novel, sometimes when Christie started her books, even she didn’t know who the murderer was. Ah! It makes sense—a brilliant mystery writer must first experience the mystery! Or does it?

Miss Marple, she ain’t.