Every Picture Tells a Story*

DiagramsHow 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.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Edmund Crispin, Ellery Queen, Martin Edwards

42 responses to “Every Picture Tells a Story*

  1. Hi Margot,
    The late great Ed McBain used diagrams in many of his wonderful novels. I always loved pouring over them. I felt he enjoyed adding them to the story and of course they were not space fillers. They were very much part of the intrigue.
    I always enjoy reading Ed McBain in the dark winter nights.(With a wee whisky.) Don’t ask me why?
    Thank you for your great blogs and my best wishes to you.
    Kind Regards,
    Harry Dunn.

    • Harry – Thanks for the kind words. And right you are indeed about Ed McBain. There are lots of terrific diagrams in his novels, and they add to the stories. I’ll bet he did indeed enjoying putting them in his stories. You make a good point too about diagrams as integral parts of the story, rather than space fillers.
      And yes, McBain and a whisky go together…

  2. This takes us back to the great days of Dell Mapbacks (where there were maps on the back covers of the books). Diagrams and maps are indispensable to some books – take Hake Talbot’s magnificent “Rim of the Pit,” which includes a back-cover map showing the location of some of the “impossible” crimes (the footprints that appear in the middle of an unbroken field of snow, for example). There’s a lot that can be done with maps to enhance a mystery!

    • Les – Oh, I’d forgotten about those great Mapbacks! What fine examples of the way maps and diagrams are integrated into stories. And there are some novels, like the Tallbot you mention, where those kinds of tools really are critical. Thanks for adding that in.

  3. I love diagrams in Golden Age stories because they seem an instant indicator of their vintage but quite often i find them handy as it aides the descriptions – having said that, they never, ever help me to work out the solutions as I just don;t have the kind of brain that allows me to work out why an alibi couldn’t have worked just because X was in room B when as that moment he must have been in C because he claimed to have seen y at such a such a time … wow, I;m getting fuzzy already 🙂

    • Sergio – You’ve got a well-taken point. Everyone thinks differently, learns differently, knows differently and so on. So it makes complete sense that some people can really ‘dive in’ to diagrams and so on and work out clues from them. And some don’t think that way. But as you say, whether one uses a diagram/map or not, those tools do feel vintage.

  4. Yes, I love maps and diagrams! I find it quite hard to visualise places from descriptions alone, so maps really help. And it’s the diagrams of the dancing men that make that one of the best of all the Holmes stories – I still love to try to work out the code each time, although I’ve read it so often now that even my bad memory retains too much for it to be like new. When Kindle books were a new thing I bought a collection of the Holmes stories only to find they didn’t have the maps and diagrams – aargh! The publisher very quickly sorted it though when hordes of irate Dancing Men fans descended on them… 😉

    • FictionFan – Thanks for the hilarious mental picture of Dancing Men fans descending on the publisher!! Wish I could’ve seen it! 😉 And you’re not in the least alone when it comes to finding visual imaging difficult. Many, Many people like pictures and maps when they get directions, diagrams and sketches in novels, and all the rest of it. Even the most gifted author can’t bridge that gap easily without graphics. OK, still chuckling over that mental image… 😆

  5. aaron

    Hello Margot! I’m reading Vintage Murder by the great Ngaio Marsh, and it too features a diagram illustrating the pulley system used ostensibly to lower a huge bottle of champagne, though the pulley of course has a more nefarious purpose in the story! In this specific case I’m not sure that it was necessary, but I do like maps to help visualize a story.
    A fascinating article in The Walrus some time ago explored the Stieg Larsson books and apparently, when you see the locations described in the real world, it offers some interesting insights into the story (no spoilers!). A map for those sites would likely help readers not necessarily in the market for a Northern European walking tour!

    • Aaron – Oh, that’s really interesting about the Larsson trilogy. I didn’t know that about the article; I’ll have to check that out. It sounds like it shows how closely the real world mirrors fiction (or vice versa) And thanks too for mentioning Vintage Murder. That’s a good example of exactly what I had in mind with this post. And there are definitely times when a diagram or maps are useful.

      • aaron

        Hi Margot! I’m fairly sure it was The Walrus, but I could well be wrong about the magazine title! It is a long article, 11 or 12 pages in length, and the author took the walking tour and talked to a few people, so it is a reasonably intelligent and well-sourced. I’ll let you know if I can find my copy so that you’re able to focus your search!

  6. Margot: Thanks for the kind mention. You have brightened my day.

    In The Judas Window by John Dickson Carr writing as Carter Dickson there is a diagram of the house involved on the front cover.

    As modern writers seem to create more complex plots I have thought the occasional diagram or map would improve the reading experience. I do not think they are distractions. Maybe they could be the next “big thing” in publishing!

    • Bill- Maybe they could! And thanks for mentioning The Judas Window. It’s one of those novels where a diagram really comes in handy. It does in a lot of modern novels too, as you say. There are plenty of contemporary novels where the plots get complex or there’s a situation that would be made clearer with a diagram or map. I know I’ve found that with my reading.
      And it’s my pleasure to mention your fine blog.

  7. I am a map fan and love it when there’s one in a book, constantly checking to see where the action is taking place. I’ve just finished reading Paul Sussman’s The Lost Army of Cambyses, which has a map which added so much more to the story and to the sense of place in the book.

    An interesting one, I think, is in Ian Rankin’s Standing in Another Man’s Grave in which the endpapers show reproductions of a road map of the area, with blood splashes added!

    And I love this book – ‘Following the Detectives: real locations in crime fiction’ by Maxim Jakubowski which does what it says in the title – 15 cities and 6 regions round the world that appear in crime fiction.

    • Margaret – Oh, yes, I remember reading your post about The Lost Army of Cambyses. It sounds like one of those books where a map is a really useful too. And as you say, maps can also add to a book’s sense of place.
      And thanks for reminding me of Standing in Another Man’s Grave. That map definitely adds to the story doesn’t it? I’m very glad you filled in that gap.
      As to Following the Detectives…, I must look for that one. I’ve heard of it but I haven’t (yet) had the chance to read it. Thanks for the recommendation.

  8. Loved those Dell Mapbooks. I only have one but look for them. I will take any help I can get. A cast of characters is usually necessary if it’s given I find.

    • Patti – Those Mapbacks are great, aren’t they? And you have a point about a cast of characters. Agatha Christie provided them with some of her books, but not all. In books like Hilary Mantel’s Wolfe Hall, which has so many characters, I find those lists of characters (and family trees, too) to be really helpful.

  9. I am, sadly, confused by maps. (A little embarrassing). No one will find maps in my books! But–I do like things like family trees or casts of characters, if we’re talking about appendices in general for books. Those I do find helpful.

    • Elizabeth – I could never put a map in any of my books either, mostly because my artwork is pathetic. Diagrams and so on in other books are helpful to me if they’re really clear. If they get complicated, then it’s harder for me to use them. Like you, though, I do benefit from casts of characters. I like glossaries too when the novel uses phrases and words that readers might not understand.

  10. Count me in with the map fans: a map before chapter 1 tells me this is a book I’m going to enjoy. I could probably draw for you (badly!) the magical map at the beginning of Sayers’ The Nine Tailors, with the villages, the church and the fens. And I also love to walk through real places remembering the books set there – I have a couple of books listing the real locations of murder stories. (no of course I’m not obsessed or anything…)

    • Moira – Well, if you’re obsessed, then my case is hopeless .. 😉 – I’m so glad you mentioned the map in The Nine Tailors. I think it adds a lot to the story; it certainly placed me there, if I can put it that way. I’m glad you filled in that gap. And it’s funny you would mention walking around in real places where books have been set. I’ve done that too, and it’s great fun.

  11. I remember all of us taking a psych test at my first place of work which explained how each of us best learned knew stuff – through being told verbally, seeing it done, or doing it ourselves. Every single person got a slightly different variation on the results graph.

    I’m usually best with words, but for very visual things like world-building etc, I’d much rather have maps and diagrams. I wish more authors used them, actually.

    Although top of my list is still a pronunciation guide!

    • Tess – That’s really interesting that you folks took one of those psych tests. I’ve taken them too, ‘though not as job-related thing. I think our uniqueness really does come through when we profile ourselves that way.
      You’ve a well-taken point too that part of what determines how we learn best is what we’re trying to learn. When it’s something visual or structural, it makes sense to learn it best through maps and diagrams. When it’s something else we learn it another way. I know for me, if it’s how to do something (like changing the oil in a car or something), I prefer to learn by doing.
      Thanks too for the comment about pronunciation guides! I really like them too, especially in novels that include words from another language that I’m not likely to know.

      • Exactly re other languages – also science fiction novels, and character names if they’re unusual enough. I mean, I even got Gandalf’s name wrong – I always pronounced it to rhyme with the British version of ‘half’!

        • I hadn’t thought about the scifi angle, Tess, but you’re right about it. I like to get characters’ names right too, and it’s nice to be explicitly told how they’re pronounced if it’s not intuitive.

  12. Hi Margot, I love pictures in books and yes, I always refer to them. If really gives you an insight into the writer’s mind. I often draw maps and pictures myself. I have a huge map of Tuesbury, which really needs updating so that I can keep a handle on where things happen in my stories. I’d love to include this in a book, I’m just not sure it’s actually that readable by anyone but me lol.

    • D.S. – You know, I think that’s a wonderful idea – to have a map of the fictional town one’s created. I ought to do that with my own Tilton – thanks! And maps and other drawings can help people orient themselves when they’re reading. I’d love to see your map in one of your stories.

  13. Well, I will fall in with the majority. I love maps and diagrams in books. But I am hopeless with maps and directions in real life. I collect Mapbacks (when I can afford to) because the maps are so cool and the covers are usually very nice too.

    Deborah Crombie’s books (at least the more recent ones) have wonderful maps on the inside covers. Unfortunately a lot of the print on them is too small for my old eyes.

    • Tracy – I like Mapbacks very much myself. I wish I had a collection of ’em but I don’t. I agree with you though that they’re really attractive. And thanks too for mentioning Deborah Crombie’s work. I must catch up with her Kincaid/James series. It’s a good one and I haven’t read it recently

  14. kathy d.

    I very rarely see mapbacks or diagrams in books, but then I haven’t read many classic mysteries, and it’s been decades since I read any of the master detective’s investigations.
    However, there are sometimes maps in the inside cover to show the geography of areas mentioned in the books. I always look at those, and if there aren’t any, I search on the Internet to find locations, see what is nearby, and read up on the flora and fauna.
    Diagrams and maps are good, fun, interesting.

    • Kathy – I like those maps that are inside the front covers of books, too. They help me orient myself when I’m reading. And I know what you mean about going to the internet to look for a map if the book doesn’t have one. I’ve done that myself. I like to get a sense of place when I read, especially if it’s a place I’ve never been before.

  15. I usually don’t like maps and diagrams in fiction unless I’m reading espionage and the author is taking me through the bowels of the KGB headquarters, so to speak. I do, however, prefer a list of character names at the very beginning, as in the Erle Stanley Gardner novels which made reading those paperbacks easier. Some large books, especially sagas, may require maps and family trees.

    • Prashant – Lists of characters can be really helpful, especially in novels with a lot of characters or complicated family networks. I like to be able to consult them too.

  16. Col

    I like them but can’t readily recall any from recent reads. Like Prashant, character lists are useful.

  17. Les got there first but I just loved those Dell Mapbacks. Aside from their functionality in telling the story some are quite works of art themselves.

  18. I do like maps and diagrams if the placement of land or buildings (or rooms in a building) is important to the plot. If the maps or diagrams are there, I use them.

    • Pat – And sometimes that placement does matter to a plot. Like you, I check out the maps if that happens. I’m usually a ‘word’ person but there are times when maps and diagrams are incredibly helpful.

What's your view? I'd love to hear it.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s