Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Visual Aids...

How do you learn and remember best? Do you learn linguistically? Do you learn through remembering patterns? Through the visual? Research shows that we all know and remember in different ways That makes sense, too, given the number of other things that make each of us unique. And if you think about it, reading and enjoying a crime fiction novel is a process of learning and remembering. We read about (and hopefully, remember) the characters, we notice the pattern of clues, we follow along with the sleuth, and at the end, we’ve learned the story. Since we don’t all learn in the same way, it makes sense that we don’t all read in the same way, either. That’s one reason it can add to a crime fiction novel if the author includes what you might call visual aids, such as maps and diagrams. Maps, diagrams, family trees and other visuals can help the reader understand the story better, and they can provide interesting clues. They can also be helpful in providing a solid sense of place. One disadvantage is that if those visuals aren’t done well, or aren’t accurate, this can be distracting. And of course, not all crime fiction requires visuals; I’ve read plenty of unforgettable crime fiction that had no visuals. Still, visuals certainly have their place in crime fiction.

Visuals turn out to be very important in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Dancing Men. In that story, Hilton Cubitt visits Sherlock Holmes out of concern about his wife, Elsie. Elsie, who’s originally American, has had association with some very shady characters in her past, and now, Cubitt believes that one of them has come to England and is stalking Elsie. She’s been receiving cryptic messages that consist of what look like a child’s drawings, and seems terrified by them. She won’t confide in her husband, but Cubitt fears for her. Holmes agrees to look into the case and Cubitt gives him examples of messages that Elsie has received. Holmes uses several of these messages to figure out that they are not drawings, but actually coded communication. Holmes cracks the code and is able to use it against the person who’s been stalking Elsie Cubitt. There are a few examples of the messages in the story, and they are well-placed there; it would be harder to understand the story (and try to crack the code) without those visuals.

There’s also a very effective use of the visual, for a similar purpose, in Dorothy Sayers’ Have His Carcase. Harriet Vane takes a hiking holiday near the village of Wolvercombe, but all thoughts of peace and quiet disappaear when she finds the body of a man on the beach. Harriet takes some ‘photos and gives the alarm, but by the time the police get to the scene, the tide has come in and washed away almost all of the evidence. At first, there’s a question of whether the man committed suicide, but soon enough it’s clear that he was murdered. The man turns out to be Paul Alexis, a Russian-born professional dancer at a local hotel. One key to Alexis’ death seems to be a carefully-coded cipher. Cracking that cipher is one piece of evidence that leads Harriet and Lord Peter Wimsey to the truth about Alexis’ murder. As it turns out, Alexis was killed for a very prosaic reason. As the two sleuths are trying to figure out the code, we see a reproduction of the cipher. That visual serves a few purposes in the novel. First, it helps the reader understand the code. It also draws the reader into the story. Finally, the visual gives the reader the chance to “play along” and try to crack the code.

It’s not just “cipher code” novels that benefit from visuals, though. Agatha Christie uses visuals to good effect in other novels, too. For instance, in Death On the Nile, Hercule Poirot is on a cruise up the Nile. On the same boat are beautiful and wealthy Linnet Ridgeway Doyle and her new husband, Simon, who are taking their honeymoon. On the second night of the cruise, Linnet is shot. Suspicion falls first on Jacqueline de Bellefort, Linnet’s former best friend, who was engaged to Simon Doyle until he and Linnet met and fell in love. Jacqueline has threatened Linnet, and a large letter “J” is drawn on the wall near the shooting scene. But soon, it’s proven that Jacqueline couldn’t have had anything to do with the murder, so Poirot and Colonel Race, who’s also on the cruise, look elsewhere. As they piece together the events of the night of the murder, the two make use of the ship’s plan, with notes as to who occupied each cabin. A reproduction of that plan is given in the novel, and that gives the reader a helpful mental picture of who was where during the shooting. It also provides clues to the careful reader who’s also been paying attention to what the other passengers say. In the end, and after two more deaths, Poirot figures out who shot Linnet Doyle and why, and some of his deductions make more sense because of that drawing.

In Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Christie provides two helpful diagrams. In that novel, Poirot has decided to retire to the village of King’s Abbott, where he wants to grow vegetable marrows. Soon enough, though, he’s drawn into a murder case when Flora Ackroyd begs him to investigate the murder of her uncle, retired manufacturing tycoon Roger Ackroyd. Flora’s fiancĂ©, Captain Ralph Paton, is suspected of the murder, but Flora is convinced he’s innocent. Poirot agrees to look into the matter and begins to talk to the suspects and sift through the evidence. One of the diagrams Christie provides is a layout of Ackroyd’s study. This proves quite helpful, as there’s an important clue in it. There’s also a diagram of the house and grounds, and that’s useful, too, as Poirot figures out who was where at the time of the murder. In the end, Poirot is able to use those clues, and the evidence that suspects give him, to get to the truth about Ackroyd’s murder and clear Ralph Paton’s name.

Sometimes, maps and other visuals serve the purpose of orienting the reader. For instance, Philip R. Craig’s J.W. Jackson mysteries are centered on Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. Jackson is a former Boston police officer who’s moved with his family to Martha’s Vineyard. Now, he’s a fisherman and part-time investigator who’s come to love the slower-paced life on the island. Because of the strong sense of place of those novels, it’s very helpful that they include maps of Martha’s Vineyard. The maps don’t have street-level detail, but they do name several towns and landmarks on Martha’s Vineyard. This is very helpful in giving the reader a sense of the place, and in helping the reader follow the action of the novels.

The same is true of Donna Leon’s novels featuring Commissario Guido Brunetti. The Brunetti novels take place mostly in Venice, and it’s much easier to understand the action in the stories if one has a sense of the different places in the city. So it helps the reader that there are maps of Venice in the front and back of each novel. Venice is, of course, a large city, so the maps shown in the novels don’t show every detail. Rather, they show places that are relevant to the story at hand. And all of the maps show the Questura and its surrounding landmarks.

The second of Shona MacLean’s Alexander Seaton novels also feature useful maps. A Game of Sorrows takes place in 17th Century Ireland. A great deal has changed since those years, so it’s quite helpful that there are maps that feature the towns and other landmarks mentioned in the story. Those maps give the reader a sense of time and place, and arguably a better understanding of the action that takes place in the stories.

I’ve only had space to mention a few novels and series that make use of maps and other visuals. There are lots more. Do you find those visuals helpful? Distracting? Do you use them as you read?


  1. Depending on how an author uses them, maps and other visuals can add a lot to the story. However, if the author gets too carried away with them the plot can be lost.

    Thoughts in Progress

  2. Mason - That's just it; you put that quite well. Too many maps, diagrams and so on can take away from the plot - the whole point of the story. On the other hand, they can also be really useful in understanding the story.

  3. Completely depends on how they are used. Connan Doyle used scraps of notes effectively, as did Agatha Christie, but sometimes they can get really tedious.

    Yet another great post, Margot. How you come up with such brilliant ones every single day is beyond me.

  4. Firstly let me echo Rayna's comment - I am equally impressed with your ability to come up with such interesting posts each day - I can't even dredge up a sensible comment for each one, let alone an entire original post with well thought out premise and interesting examples. You are amazing.

    Now on to visual aids...I generally ignore the maps/house diagram type stuff but I have a notoriously low spatial intelligence quotient (fancy way of saying map/diagram reading ability).

    It's interesting that you mentioned the Alexander Seaton books - I listened to the first one in audio format (no maps) I imagined a very thorough sense of location in my head but I wonder how different it was from the one MacLean mapped out...I must take a look at the printed version of the book sometime.

  5. Rayna - You are very, very kind - thank you. And you have such a very well-taken point, too. Some authors (Conan Doyle and Christie are two good examples) use those visuals quite well. They're not overdone and they're helpful to the reader. At other times, maps, charts and other graphics are tedious. Sometimes they're hard to read, too.

    Bernadette - *Blush* Thank you :) - That's awfully kind of you. I think it's interesting that some people have more visual-spatial orientation than others do. Like you, I rely much more on the words than I do on charts, diagrams and so on. Even while driving, I would rather have a list of directions to follow than a map. But, for some people, those visuals do help.

    If you do get a chance to check out the maps in the MacLean books, I'd be interested to know how similar they are to what you'd imagined. I always think it's fascinating how different people's perceptions of exactly the same thing can differ.

  6. I always liked the maps and house diagrams in those classic mysteries. Nice to know where you are. Admittedly, it can be overdone and we don't see as much of it these days.

  7. John - I know what you mean about some of that terrific Golden Age crime fiction; maps, diagrams and so on are helpful in orienting one in those novels. I hadn't thought about changes in the use of those visual aids, but you've got a point. There may, indeed, be less of that kind of visual than there was. I wonder whether that's because of the kind of mysteries people are writing now, or because it's just gone out of vogue.

  8. I've always been a very visual person - probably one of the reasons I designed costumes for the theatre and I'm very good at knowing where and how to hang art work.

    I've always liked books that have a map or a floor plan, it helps me figure out where everything is happening. At one point I drew the house plan for the manor where my mystery takes place, simply so I could keep track of where everyone was and to keep their movements logical. I wanted to know where each room was and who was staying next door to who. Who had a view of what from their window? If sound traveled up someone's fireplace, who could have heard it? I never could have done it without that drawing.

  9. Elspeth - Thank you for your insights about writing. I hadn't thought about the real value of maps and diagrams for the author, but that makes complete sense. If you want to have a scene where a character overhears something, it can't happen if the character is at the opposite end of a house. Maps, drawings and the like can be very useful in making sure that all of the action is logical and possible.

    You also make a well-taken point about visual intelligence. For folks like yourself, who are gifted with visual skills, it's extremely helpful to have some sort of map, diagram or drawing to follow the action of a story as a reader, too.

  10. I'm definately a visual kind of guy. I need patterns to remember patterns, and then I get all confused. Google images and Google Earth have been extremely useful for me in my research.

    Stephen Tremp

  11. Stephen - Isn't modern technology amazing? I'm always surprised at the number of images, maps and so on that there are out there, and I find them very helpful, too. I think no matter how visual one is, those pieces of information can be incredibly helpful. I think they can be helpful for the reader, too; when the reader can look at a map or diagram, etc., it can make some parts of a story a lot clearer.

  12. I learn by reading so though I like pictures of coded messages etc, I don´t get much out of tidy little maps of villages or manors. The funny thing is that for my own cozy mystery I have made a map of all the important buildings in Knavesborough, but perhaps the difference is that when I have made it myself, I *do* get the idea?

  13. Very interesting question. I'm not especially visual myself, but I've started to think a map might be a good idea for my current work in progress. Certainly, I like maps in books, and family trees, when they help to simplify complex plot elements. The Sayers cipher is a good example.

  14. Dorte - How interesting! I have to admit, I'm like you in the sense that I learn more by reading than by pictures. I am using some 'photos and scenes to guide me as I write my current book, though. I won't include them in the book, but I am using them to give myself some mental images. Isn't it interesting how those pictures that we don't need to read, we do find useful when we write...

    Martin - I'm not what you'd call overly visual, myself, although I agree with you that aids such as family trees and some maps and so on can be very useful if just reading the text won't make things clear enough. I've never felt the lack of a map as I've read your LD mysteries; you make things quite clear in your writing. But I can certainly see how a map could be useful if you wouldn't find it easy to convey the action or a location otherwise. I think it's a question that authors have to consider as they think about the best way to tell the story.

  15. Love the books with maps on the back cover and also love when a list of characters is included. Anything to help. Movies stays with me a lot better than novels.

  16. Patti - I agree; character lists can be very, very helpful, especially if there are a lot of characters. I like family trees for that reason, too. I admit, books stay with me longer than movies do, but hey, we all remember in different ways...