I love books that start with a map, from Westeros to Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy. I remember following Frodo’s painstakingly slow pace from Hobbiton to Camembert – sorry, Bree. I loved going through the map, and to picture myself walking around those enchanted forests and cities with mysterious names (Caradhras and Gorgoroth are still my favourite words from the Tolkien universe).
In more recent times, I’ve continued the habit with C.J. Sansom’s Shardlake series. Dark Fire is my favourite, and as I read I followed every step of the plot in the very nice map of Tudor London. I went from Cheapside to the Tower, imagining the foul smells and the overhanging upper stories alla Shambles of York.
When I decided to set my own series in Victorian Edinburgh, one of the first things I looked for was a map of the period. My books are set (so far) between 1888 and 1889, but the nearest I could find was 1870. The 18-year gap would prove largely irrelevant – this I shall explain:-
The Scottish half of my detective duo, Adolphus Nine-Nails McGray, has a young sister who is sadly secluded in Edinburgh’s Royal Lunatic Asylum. Back then the place was one of the most advanced institutions for the treatment of mental illnesses, and the building, which has not changed much since then, sits in the now leafy, café- and tearoom-ridden Morningside. Very fittingly, it is now the faculty of Psychiatry.
During my first research trip I went to see it. I was too shy to tell the tourist information lady I was looking for “the building that used to be a lunatics asylum in 1889” – she might have thought I needed the place myself – so I simply asked which bus I needed to take to Morningside. Off I went, and only too late I realised I had not brought a map of the city with me. The only reference I had at hand was a print-out of my 1870s map. Again, I was too shy to ask the driver or other passenger. What could I have said? “Excuse me, sir, do you know the stop to the building that used to be a lunatics asylum in 1889?” Applying my, by then, very well-practised British stoicism, I kept still, and simply looked at my +140-year-old map.
To my surprise, most of the streets still had the same names! I got off at the right stop, looked around, had some soul-restoring tea, and then jumped on the bus back to explore the city for the rest of the weekend. All with a +140-year-old map.
By now (I’m working on the 4th book of the series) I know Edinburgh better than I do my own neighbourhood. I dream of the day I can own a basement flat in Moray Place, where McGray has his rather neglected townhouse; whenever I’m in town I have a glass or two at the Ensign Ewart, McGray’s favourite pub; and then, if sober enough, I like to stroll down the Royal Mile to the City Chambers, which used to be the CID headquarters.
I am so glad that my new book, A Mask of Shadows, also includes a beautiful map of old Edinburgh (drawn from my +140-year-old map). I hope that now someone else will follow the steps of my detectives, from their homes to the spookiest crime scenes – just like I followed Frodo Baggins, whilst wondering why I craved for some cheese.
A Mask of Shadows by Oscar de Muriel
A Mask of Shadows by Oscar de Muriel
1889. The Scottish Play is coming home. But before the darling couple of London theatre, Henry Irving & Ellen Terry, take their acclaimed Macbeth to the Edinburgh stage terror treads the boards. A grisly message found smeared across the cobbles in blood, foretelling someone's demise. As the bloody prophecies continue to appear Edinburgh's own beloved pair - Detective 'Nine-Nails' McGray & Inspector Ian Frey - enter the scene. Frey scoffs at this blatant publicity stunt, while McGray is convinced of supernatural affairs. As they scrutinise the key players, they discover that Terry, Irving, and his peculiar, preoccupied assistant (one Bram Stoker) all have reasons to kill, or be killed... But one thing is clear. By occult curse or human hand, death will take bow the night the curtain rises.