One of the great delights of golden age detective fiction is the plethora of maps that appear.
As I read through the recommended list of books from our conference speakers, three of the books I have just completed, Overture To Death by Ngaio Marsh, Look to The Lady by Margery Allingham and The Nine Tailors by Dorothy L. Sayers feature maps (and sometimes more than one such map) of the locations where the crimes take place. And one need look no further than Agatha Christie’s first Poirot novel The Mysterious Affair at Styles to complete your full house of all four Queens of Crime including a plan of the setting for the action. They are, of course, not alone in having this feature. Fully half of the books I have been reading in preparation for the conference, by almost any of the golden age authors, have something of the kind.
This fascination with pictorial representations of the scene in no way indicates shortcomings in the descriptive powers of the writers. This is far from the case. It appears more to be adherence to a convention and bowing, therefore, to their audiences expectations.
It does make for an interesting diversion from the main business of reading the story to check the maps to follow routes taken by characters – do they seem to be sensible ways to get from A to B in the time available? Will the alibis stand up?
But sometimes, the layout is not significant to the plot. In that case, is the presence of the map in itself a giant red herring, implying that character’s movements around the setting for the events is of greater importance to the solution of whodunnit than is in fact necessary?
Perhaps this is why two other books I have also read recently, X v Rex by Philip Macdonald (writing as Martin Porlock) and Malice Aforethought by Frances Iles (aka Anthony Berkeley) do not use maps. Each is, in its way, consciously breaking with the traditions and conventions of the genre. Neither is a classic whodunnit puzzle to be solved. The former is arguably the first attempt to portray a serial killer and reveal something of the killer’s psychology that drives them to commit the crimes; the latter is an inverted tale where you know the identity of the killer and the question is whether or not he will get away with the murder or be caught (wherein lies the suspense).