How do you remember best? Is it easiest for you to make sense of something if you see it in pictures and other graphics? In words? If you hear it? Some other way? When someone gives you directions to get to a place, do you prefer a map or a list of steps to take? Research shows fairly conclusively (at least to me) that we all learn differently and we all have different preferences for how we like to remember things.
Given that’s true, it makes a lot of sense that we have different preferences for remembering what we experience in books. To me that’s one of the advantages for instance of audio books. People who remember easily what they hear can enjoy a story in a format that works really well for them.
It’s also one of the arguments for including diagrams and maps in a novel. I’ve mentioned this before on this blog, but a recent interesting comment exchange with Bill Selnes at Mysteries and More from Saskatchewan has got me thinking about it again. By the way, if you’re not familiar with Bill’s blog, you’ll want to check it out. It’s a rich resource for Canadian crime fiction as well as crime fiction from other parts of the world. And Bill provides lots of insights into lawyers, legal novels and legal work.
Bill made the excellent point that it would be nice to have diagrams in contemporary novels, and that makes sense. Several modern novels have plots that focus on a particular incident or place. There are others where the plot (or at least part of it) hinges on where certain things or places are in relation to others. For those novels, it can be very helpful to have a map or diagram. That way, the reader can get a stronger mental image of what’s happening in the story.
Some modern novels do have maps and diagrams. Martin Edwards’ The Hanging Wood, for instance, takes place mostly in and around a part of the Lake District called The Hanging Wood where Orla Payne and her brother Callum grew up. Twenty years ago Callum disappeared. Now Orla wants to find out the truth about what happened to him. She calls DCI Hannah Scarlett of the Cumbria Constabulary’s Cold Case Review Team, but the call doesn’t go well. Then Orla commits suicide (or is it?). Partly out of a sense of guilt about not taking Orla’s call more seriously, Scarlett and her team re-open the disappearance case. Accompanying this novel is a map of the area and it’s very helpful as the reader works out what happened to Callum and Orla Payne, and how the different characters’ lives intersect.
Any reader of classic/Golden Age crime fiction will know that many of those novels contain diagrams and maps. For instance, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Dancing Men, Sherlock Holmes gets a visit from Hilton Cubitt. Cubitt’s concerned about his wife Elsie, who’s been getting some strange cryptic letters. She won’t tell him what they’re about, but since they come from America, Cubitt suspects they may have something to do with his wife’s past (she was born and brought up there). Then similar cryptic messages appear in chalk on the Cubitts’ property and now Elsie is terrified. One night Cubitt is shot and his wife injured. Holmes uses the cryptic coded messages to lure the killer out of hiding and find out the truth. Diagrams of the messages are provided for the reader and that adds to the interest in the story. It also allows cryptographers the chance to hone their skills.
Agatha Christie uses them in several of her stories. I’ll just give one example. In The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Poirot comes out of what he thought would be retirement to the village of King’s Abbot when retired magnate Roger Ackroyd is stabbed in his study. His stepson Ralph Paton is the most likely suspect, and the evidence supports that theory. But Paton’s fiancée Flora is convinced that he is innocent. So she asks Poirot to investigate. He agrees and looks into the crime. This novel includes a diagram of the Ackroyd property Fernly Park and one of Akcroyd’s study. Those diagrams are very helpful in understanding the sequence of events on the night of the murder.
Edmund Crispin’s The Case of the Gilded Fly also contains a very useful diagram. In that novel, a group of theatre people come to Oxford for a series of performances of Richard Warner’s new play Metromania. Everyone settles in and rehearsals and other preparations start in earnest. Then one night, one of the actresses Yseute Haskell dies in what looks like a shooting suicide. She was alone in her room at the time, and no-one saw anybody enter or leave that room. What’s more, evidence shows that she wasn’t shot from a very great distance. But there are suggestions that this might have been murder. And there are plenty of people who had a motive. Sir Gervase Fen, Oxford Professor of English Language and Literature, takes an interest in the case. He works with his friend Chief Constable Sir Richard Freeman and with Nigel Blake, whom he used to mentor, to find out who the killer is. In this case the diagram is of the building in which the murder occurred. And it proves to be quite helpful if the reader follows along carefully…
Several of the Ellery Queen mysteries make effective use of diagrams. For instance, in The French Powder Mystery, Queen and his father Inspector Richard Queen investigate a strange shooting death. One day one of the employees at French’s Department Store prepares to demonstrate some furniture and accessories displayed in the main shop window. One of those pieces of furniture is a bed that folds out from the wall. When the employee opens the bed, she is horrified to discover the body of Winifred French, wife of the store’s owner Cyrus French. It’s soon shown though that she was shot in her husband’s private office/apartment on the sixth floor of the building and her body brought to the display window. As the Queens look into this case, they find that timing and placement matter a great deal in solving the mystery. And to help the reader along, there’s a diagram of parts of the building. There’s also a diagram of Cyrus French’s private suite of rooms.
There are lots of other examples of classic/Golden Age novels with diagrams. And of course there are some modern novels that have them, too. A lot of people think they can be very helpful. Do you? When you read a novel with a map or diagram, do you consult it? If you’re a writer, what are your thoughts about including tools like diagrams?
Thanks, Bill, for the inspiration!
*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Rod Stewart and Ron Wood.