In the category of Things They Don't Make Like They Used To, today's focus is on vintage Dell paperback novels. This colorful map of historic Annapolis, Maryland, is featured on the back cover of the circa 1951 Dell paperback "Date with Death" by Leslie Ford.1
mapback, which is a collectors' term for a line of paperbacks — many of which were mysteries — published by Dell Books from about 1943 through 1951.
The books are known as mapbacks because, well, the back covers feature a map showing locations from the novel.
Many of the books also include character lists at the front. "Date with Death," for example, contains a list of 13 characters, including Doctor Jonas Smith, Gordon Darcy Grymes2, Agatha Reed, Professor Darrell, Olive Oliphant, Sergeant Digges and Wetherby.
There were approximately 550 titles of this style published by Dell.
Gary Lovisi wrote an in-depth article for Mystery Scene titled "Dell Map Back Mysteries: They Don't Make 'em Like that Anymore!" Here's an excerpt from his piece regarding the origins of the mapback:
"Dell editor Lloyd Smith, born in 1902, came up with the idea for the back cover maps (or someone at Western Publishing suggested the idea to him). Smith was, in essence, a one-man publishing whirlwind. According to most accounts, he designed and envisioned the series, originating the maps, casts of characters and other features, and even suggested the airbrushed covers that Gerald Gregg and others would paint so effectively.For more, I highly recommend Lovisi's article.
"Many of the maps were drawn by Chicago graphic artist Ruth Belew, who created at least 150 of the 577 maps. They showed anything from a nation or state with cities, streets, mountains, seas and lakes, to a Manhattan brownstone with diagrams of the various floors, or a country estate, showing rooms, gardens and outbuildings."
And here are some other mapback facts, from Wikipedia:
- "A few oddities were published without a map on the back cover. Dell 'War Books' such as #26, The Raft, and #32, This Time For Keeps, had back covers which exhorted the reader to 'Buy War Bonds and Stamps.'"
- "There are a number of movie tie-in novels in the series. One of the most significant is #262, Rope, by Alfred Hitchcock — actually written by Don Ward — with a cover featuring James Stewart."
- "The Dell mapback line also contains a number of mysteries by writers who have fallen out of favor over the years — or who were never popular. Collectors cherish the camp value of such mysteries as Murder Wears Mukluks by Eunice Mays Boyd, The Body That Wasn't Uncle by George Worthing Yates, and Death Wears a White Gardenia by Zelda Popkin."
BookScans, a reference website featuring thousands of JPGs of vintage paperback covers, has a separate section on the Dell mapbacks.3 It includes almost every one of the 500+ covers in the series. You could lose your whole afternoon to it.
(And, if it's a rainy afternoon where you live, why not?)
1. For some interesting discussions of author Leslie Ford, see "Leslie Ford: The Material Girl's Guide to Murder" and "Leslie Ford's Fall from Grace."
2. Gordon Darcy Grymes is described as "a writer, is strikingly handsome, sophisticated, and something of a heel." He, of course, has an indentical twin who is a "wealthy Baltimore industrialist."
3. BookScans also has a neat section titled "Vintage Paperback Oddities," which includes a lot of adult bawdiness.