Dell map backs

MapBacks

It seems completely random that the first Golden Age book that I purchased was a Dell map back.  I was looking for a cheap John Dickson Carr novel, and glimpsing the gorgeous vintage cover art of Dell’s edition of Hag’s Nook, I snagged the copy for something like $3.50.  At the time it was more like a gamble – I had enjoyed Carr’s short stories and was looking to see if a more drawn out form of the impossible crime novel would hold my attention.  Might as well grab a decent looking cover while I’m at it.  Kind of cool that it turned out there was an illustration on the back…

Of course it seems kind of funny to me now.  Map backs aren’t exactly impossible to find, but they’re a treat to get ahold of.  These are close to vintage novels at their finest.  That perfect size, a nice font, classically illustrated covers, and of course, the map.  It’s the map that distinguishes them.  You’ll find rival physical specimen in 1940’s prints by the likes of Avon, Pocket Books, Pan, Bart House, or Popular Library, but they just don’t have that map.

Dell somehow made the brilliant connection that both sides of the book are suited for art.  Better yet, they seem to have realized that we all love the map of the crime scene that you find buried in the pages of the occasional Golden Age story.  Slap that map on the back and give it a little color, and you have a nice little enhancement of the novel.

There’s a decent number of Dell map backs out there, ranging from westerns, romances, and mysteries.  Are they all good?  Well, I doubt it, but I can only vouch for what I’ve read.  So here it is – perhaps a guide for some curious soul who is tempted to make the investment, but isn’t quite sure what to go for.  My first edition of this won’t be that useful of a guide by that criteria, as all of the authors/titles are fairly well known – the Anthony Boucher novel probably being the most obscure.  It’s worth noting that three of these are entries from Ed Hoch’s 1981 list of top fifteen impossible crimes (Death From a Top Hat, Rim of the Pit, and Through a Glass, Darkly).

Hag’s Nook – John Dickson Carr

hagsnookbackEach generation, the male heir of the Starbeth fortune is required to undertake a bizarre ritual in order to claim their inheritance – spend a night locked in the crumbling ruins of ancient Chatterham prison.  Ascending to the governor’s room, overlooking a hanging pit, the heir must open a family safe and examine its secret contents.  When a modern day undertaking of the tradition results in an heir dead with a broken neck, Dr Gideon Fell must unravel how the murder is related to two similar deaths that occurred decades in the past.

The map on this one sheds some light on the setting of Chatterham Prison.  One key element of the story, the eponymous Hag’s Nook, is a balcony suspended over a pit where witches and other prisoners were hung centuries ago.  The map provides an interesting interpretation of the nook and helps set a sense of scale for the setting.  It doesn’t exactly aid the reading, but it reinforces the atmosphere.

Death From a Top Hat – Clayton Rawson

DeathFromATopHatBackThis impossibility laden tour de force packs a lot between its pages – dual locked room murders, a no footprints in the snow crime scene, a suspect who vanishes into thin air while under observation, and multiple unbreakable alibis.  Top that off with a cast of suspects made up of magicians, escape artists, ventriloquists, and clairvoyants, and you have enough to puzzle over for half a dozen novels.

We’re treated to two maps, each depicting the crime scene from one of the locked room murders.  The detail is exquisite.  Every last set piece is captured exactly as described in the story – the chairs, fire places, radio, rugs, even the pictures and masks hanging on the wall.  We’re dealing with some complex puzzles, and the maps are a valuable reference as you try to think through how the impossibilities could have been pulled off.

Sad Cypress – Agatha Christie

SadCypressBackThis 1940 novel finds Hercule Poirot investigates a seemingly impossible poisoning.  It was published around the time that most people probably consider Christie’s most classic era, neighbored by the likes of And Then There Were None.  I wouldn’t consider Sad Cypress to be one of the best Christies that I’ve read, but it’s a solid country house mystery that’s going to check most of the boxes you’re looking for

There are two variations of this map back, both depicting a somewhat similar view of Hunterbury Hall, although with nuanced differences in the rendering.  The map itself isn’t really that important to understanding the mystery, although there are some nice details in the area of the house where the murder occurred.  For me, a map like this is more important for capturing the majesty of one of these country houses and the sprawling grounds.  Having an image of the relative locations of the lodge, kitchen garden, and back gate is a nice touch.

Case of the Seven Sneezes – Anthony Boucher

CaseOfSevenSneezes2A group of vacationers is trapped on an island with a killer who has a taste for slitting throats.  As the cast dwindles, the survivors must race to find the connection to a similar crime that happened twenty five years earlier.  What sounds like a promising premise in the hands of a writer as talented as Boucher ends up being a bit of a dud.  The mystery is never really developed beyond the fact that there is an unknown murderer, and there aren’t any memorable bits of misdirection.

The map here is kind of pointless.  Blackman’s Island is never really described, and the map doesn’t exactly trigger any sense of the imagination.  A floor plan of the main house would have been much more valuable.  There are elements of several murders where it would have been more interesting to have a layout of the rooms and hallways in order to question some possibilities of how the killer could have pulled it off.  Somewhat of a wasted opportunity for a map back.

Rim of the Pit – Hake Talbot

RimOfPitBackWhen you say “impossible crime” this is one of the first books that comes to mind.  Throw a small cast of characters into an isolated cabin in the wilderness.  Mix in a seance with multiple ghostly events culminating in a specter materializing in front of a room full of witnesses before vanishing down a dead end hallway.  Top it off with a killer who flies and leaves no footprints in the snow, and you have one hell of a book.

If there has ever been a crucial map, this is it.  Well, no, John Dickson Carr probably wins for It Walks by Night, but that’s not a map back.  Rim of the Pit may well feature the perfect map when it comes to understanding key aspects of the crime scene.  The main house map alone captures at least five key elements of layout that figure in tightly to your understanding of what unfolds.  Top that out with the illustration of the surrounding landscape in which the footprint impossibilities occur, and you have a near perfect depiction of a mind boggling multi-mystery in a single shot.  I’ll deduct some points because I don’t think an important aspect relating to one of the solutions is adequately rendered.

Through a Glass Darkly – Helen McCloy

ThroughAGlassDarkly2Faustina Crayle is an unfortunate soul haunted by a ghostly apparition… of herself.  On several occasions, Faustina has been spotted in multiple locations at the same exact time.  McCloy provides an interesting take on an impossibility that seemingly only has two possible solutions (which I assume you can think of).

The choice of the map is somewhat surprising, as the setting doesn’t come into play until the final few chapters of the book.  There’s a school in which the majority of the story is set that would have been a more obvious choice.  Still, the map does provide an illustration of a key element of the impossibility that gave this book its reputation.  An odd choice, but you’ll be thankful for the map in the end.

The victor

So, who wins out on this round?  It depends on the criteria.

In terms of story, I’m going to have to go with Hag’s Nook.  We have dread-laden atmosphere, a bit of pulp adventure, a wry touch of humor, and an ending that absolutely blew my mind.  Plus, Carr is easily one of the top writers of this pack, rivaled perhaps only by Christie.

On to the category that really counts – the map.  This is a tough choice – the two obvious choices are Rim of the Pit and Death From a Top Hat.  I really think that having access to both of these maps will elevate your reading experience.  Death From a Top Hat’s map perfectly captures the details from two incredibly complex crime scenes and gives you the luxury of analyzing the how without having to repeatedly skim through two chapters of detail.  Rim of the Pit though paints a picture of a grand scale crime scene – you get two cabin floor plans, plus the snow filled forest and lake that separates them.

It’s a tough one.  My heart says to go with Rim of the Pit, but my logic says to go with Death From a Top Hat.  In the end I’m going to go with the one that really captured my imagination and filled me with that sense of wonder that we’re all hoping for in an impossible crime – Rim of the Pit.

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7 thoughts on “Dell map backs”

  1. These are close to vintage novels at their finest. That perfect size, a nice font, classically illustrated covers, and of course, the map. It’s the map that distinguishes them.

    That, and the fact that the texts were generally abridged and no mention is made of this in the books themselves, right?

    This is a lovely little post, Ben, and it makes me reflect yet again on how bad I am at buying books because a particular edition is likely to be valuable or sought after. Your bargain-finding skills are second to none, which I know is your primary motivation a lot of the time — find an interesting one, and ideally find it cheap — and this has the advantage that your retirement will be propped up by the stacks of valuable paperbacks you’ve accrued (that, and you strike me as the kind of guy who has a good pension plan).

    I glance over my shelves and see a lot of books I love and am delighted to own, but is anyone going to be biting my arm off for a series of Norman Berrow paperbacks 40 years from now?

    And, yes, the Rim of the Pit map is far and away the best, probably of all Dell mapbacks. Reading that book without the map would be, I have no doubt, a very different experience.

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    1. It’s funny that you use Norman Berrow as an example, as those are fairly expensive. In fact, the used copies I can find appear to be 1.5-2 times the cost of buying new from Ramble House, which itself is $18 (regardless, they’re making my gift list this holiday season). Plus, aren’t some of those Ramble House editions technically map backs (at least The Footprints of Satan)?

      I can’t really imagine getting much for my book collection in the end, but then I don’t really get the mind of someone willing to pay $30+ for any book. I have to think that whatever I have in my collection could be bought just as easily elsewhere. Yeah, I see people trying to sell map backs for over $20 all the time, but if I’m patient I can probably wind up getting a copy for $5.

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      1. I only realised about them often being abridged lately, so at least that comforts me when I look at the over priced ones available. I think in Britain it is harder to get lucky with a cheap find. Although as a rule westerns and romances from the series tend to go cheaper than the mystery ones. It would be great if some kind of imprint could re-institute the practice of putting a map on the back. I think it would be very popular.

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      2. Ramble House does some map backs – I’ve at least seen them on The Footprints of Satan and The Affair of the Bottled Deuce. You’re right though – I’d be way more happy to buy a modern reprint if I was getting a nicely illustrated cover and a good map on the back. Of course, I’d also go for the small form factor of the 1940/50’s paperbacks.

        There are some map backs by non-Dell publishers over the years, although I don’t see them as being on the same level. There was a run of Bantam books around 1965 that featured a map on the back. I also have an IPL edition of The Judas Window with a rendering of the map that’s featured in the story.

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      3. Even on the relatively brief secondhand bookshop trawling experiences I’ve had in the US, I’m willing to agree that it’s hilariously so much easier to find this kind of thing over there than it is here. By the time you factor in online shops, where the prohibitive trans-Atlantic postage rules out those of us without infinite funds to purchase individual books, I’m amazed that everyone in America doesn’t possess a virtually complete set of every detective novel in all editions published between 1920 and 1950 😆

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      4. I’m amazed that everyone in America doesn’t possess a virtually complete set of every detective novel in all editions published between 1920 and 1950

        We all do, that’s why we have to hunt the map backs…

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      5. In fact, the used copies I can find appear to be 1.5-2 times the cost of buying new from Ramble House

        Retirement here I come!

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