A group of published UK-based authors and illustrators of picture books, children's and YA.

Robin Stevens – my favourite book maps

My mother's copy of The Hobbit - my first introduction into the joy of maps

My mother’s copy of The Hobbit – my first introduction into the joy of maps

Ever since I first read the Hobbit, I’ve been addicted to maps in books. Maps make a world real. They’re a key that can give anyone who looks at them the same mental image of mountains and seas and deserts. I used to pore over the maps at the front of my copies of Narnia and Redwall for hours – I think I hoped that if I stared hard enough, I’d unlock the world itself.

It’s no coincidence that I went on to be obsessed with books about real-world journeys. The Trumpet of the Swan, The Incredible Journey, and later On the Road and American Gods – they all seemed so vivid, because I could trace the characters’ progress across my map of the USA. When I was 19 I bought a horrible second-hand car in California and drove from coast to coast. My friend sat in the passenger seat and read aloud to me (this was before Audible), and it felt like we were in our own story.

But, of course, these days my very favourite literary maps are the ones in murder mysteries. The idea that maps are keys, that they lend reality to fantasy and let you follow the story with its characters – all of those things come together perfectly in crime fiction. A map in a crime novel both establishes the setting and lets you know that nothing outside that setting matters. The rest of the world is not pictured because it’s not important. There is nothing on that map that is not relevant to the mystery – it’s as tidy and selective as a murder mystery itself.

I’ve always loved that aspect of mystery novels. Unlike the real world, where every time you open a drawer ten suspicious items fall out, there are only ever three clues per mystery. Instead of a city crammed full of people, most of whom behave in completely random ways, there are only five suspects, all of whom have a perfect, tidy reason to have killed the one victim. It’s very regimented – just like a map.

But, just as on a map, sometimes the ocean will look like land, and the forest like a sea (until you blink, and see it properly), murder mysteries are all about visual trickery – making the reader assume one thing, when absolutely the opposite is going on. A map in a murder mystery can confuse as much as it illuminates. It can be clever. In Agatha Christie’s Dead Man’s Folly, the characters draw a map for the fake murder mystery they’re writing – but then it’s co-opted by a very real murderer, to stage a death of their own …

The Murder at the Vicarage map - study it carefully ...

The Murder at the Vicarage map – study it carefully …

My favourite of Agatha Christie’s maps has to be one of the three in Murder at the Vicarage. There’s one of the house, of course, and a larger one of the village – and one simply of the room in which the murder itself is committed. It’s so tight – every chair matters, and the position of each potted plant. It’s quite perfect, and, of course, full of hidden tricks.

I’m very lucky that my own books have been given maps. Location is very important to me, and I always draw out my settings before I begin, so I can imagine the world I’ve created and work out its tricks and limitations. As I go through each first draft they’re amended, and then I send the whole scrawly thing off to my publishers, to be translated into beautiful images. It’s fascinating to see the way different artists interpret what I’ve drawn, though – in the UK and US editions of my second book, for example, Fallingford House is the same shape, but Nina Tara and Elizabeth Baddeley have created two very different pieces of art.

I’m proud to have become part of the maps-in-books tradition. I hope my readers will pore over my maps for hours, just the way I did – and, of course, I hope they’ll make all the wrong conclusions as a result. After all, as a mystery writer, I’m trying to trick you …

Fallingford House - maps by Elizabeth Baddeley (top) and Nina Tara (bottom)

Fallingford House – maps by Elizabeth Baddeley (top) and Nina Tara (bottom)

About Robin Stevens

Robin Stevens was born in California and grew up in an Oxford college, across the road from the house where Alice in Wonderland lived. She has been making up stories all her life. When she was twelve, her father handed her a copy of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and she realised that what she wanted to be was a crime writer. She spent her teenage years at Cheltenham Ladies’ College, reading a lot of murder mysteries and hoping that she’d get the chance to do some detecting herself (she didn’t). She then went to university, where she studied crime fiction. Robin now lives in London.


This entry was posted on April 18, 2016 by and tagged , .

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