Over the weekend, I was attracted by the cover of a 1940s pulp paperback for sale on upper Broadway. The book was called Curtains for the Editor, and featured a bleeding body sprawled over a giant manuscript, so obviously I was sold before I’d even picked it up. But then when I turned it over, it was to find that the edition had even more to recommend it than the terrific title and vivid cover art: it was a Dell Mapback!
As any pulp lover knows, Dell produced these thrift editions—often mysteries, often hard-boiled—between 1943 and 1951. Each one was characterized by the detailed map on its back cover: often a “scene of the crime,” showing, say, the layout of a police station, a blueprint of a mansion, a neighborhood peopled with suspects and characters. There’s some variation depending on the artist, the plot, and the era; some maps are more stylized, others more colorful and precise. But all of them are “accurate” insofar as the plot goes, and they do give as good and tantalizing a glimpse into a book’s plot as any more conventional flap copy.
They’re fun, attractive, gimmicky and distinctive; in other words, they’re kind of a good idea. (See also: any book trailer.) Needless to say, Mapbacks—crossing, as they do, pulp and graphic novels—are collector catnip. Just try to find Mary Renault’s romance Kind Are Her Answers, or the first-edition Dashiell Hammett.
Thomas Polsky’s Curtains for the Editor—not to be confused with his Curtains for a Cop—is not so rare; at any rate, mine did not cost very much. However, it is excellent. It’s the story of a newspaper man (hard-boiled) on the trail of his editor’s killer (unexpected.) Plus, it contains cover and map art, respectively, by the classic Dell team of Gerald Gregg and Ruth Belew. Belew’s map in this case looks like a scale model of the newspaper’s offices, and the different rooms—POP’S SANCTUARY, POWDER ROOM, MORGUE—are clearly labeled in yellow.
It seemed to me almost miraculous to discover that you can find many of the Mapbacks online, but of course you can. Almost the entire series is available on this site, and well worth a look—if this sort of thing interests you.
As I was chatting with the book dealer, a very rude guy came up and brayed, “Does anyone actually buy these things?”
“They’re called collectibles,” said the vendor coolly, with what I considered admirable self-control.
They are also, of course, called books. And some people do. If only to look at the maps.
Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.