Book Review | The Cartographers

G.T. Dempsey


Who knew that a gas station highway map could be so deadly?  For decades, a rack of these free maps was a fixture at any gas station.  Eminently practical and helpful, but also eminently disposable.  

Not this one, though, a highway map of New York State from 1930.  Nell Young discovers the map in a secret compartment of her father’s desk following his mysterious death (first thought caused by a heart attack, his death at night at his desk in the Map Division of the New York Public Library takes on a sinister look when, the very next night, there is a break-in at the Library with the night-guard being murdered.)  Nell knows of the secret hidey-hole because she had played in her father’s office as a child.  An office both she and her father fully expected her to inherit some day.  

The New York Public Library belies its name.  Its main branch is a major international research institution and the building itself is awe-inspiring:  ‘the almost otherworldly beauty of the rich wood-paneled walls, the gleaming chandeliers overhead, the old windows that loomed from floor to ceiling,’ with the Map Division as one of its especial treasures, with ‘tens of thousands of books and atlases, and almost half a million sheet maps in its archives.’  

Here, Nell’s father long presided as its resident genius, a most eminent cartographer with an international reputation.  Here, after completing her Ph.D. in cartography, Nell came to work as long anticipated.  And, here, Nell’s career, if not her life, was ruined by her father, in an explosive argument over precisely this apparently worthless highway map. 

Book cover showing a bookcase with books and the name of the book, "The Cartographers".
Peng Shepherd The Cartographers (New York: William Morrow, 2022), pp. 391 ISBN: 9780062910691 $27.99

She is more than bewildered, then, when she discovers the ‘treasure’ her father sought to protect.  She secrets it from the investigating police and begins her quest to ferret out its significance.  With the help of a former colleague (and lover) who had also been fired from the Library in that explosive confrontation with the eminent Dr Young, she learns that the map contains a ‘phantom settlement’ (a deliberate error introduced as a copyright trap), named Agloe.  Their search for this ‘non-existent’ town soon turns ominous as they learn that that was the site where Nell’s mother (herself a budding cartographer) had died saving the toddler Nell from a house fire, an accident somehow involving a mysterious group called The Cartographers.

The gradual unravelling of the mystery is engrossing and, I must say, spooky.  Yes, there is love and betrayal, obsession and redemption (?), but this is no Agatha Christie murder-in-the-vicarage-library.  This is a meditation on the very nature of cartography, of the making of maps.  

Do maps simply mark a place?  Or can they create one, actually create a place which doesn’t exist?   ‘I can’t properly describe it to you even now.  Agloe defies explanation.  It was just a town, but it was a town that didn’t exist.  Or, rather, it didn’t exist anywhere but within the map.  How could that be possible?  And, yet, it was.’

I should mention, now, that Agloe was an actual phantom settlement known as a map trap (inserted on its New York State driving map by the General Drafting Corporation, the inventors of the cheap folding map), which turned real.  It seems that the name’s appearance in this authoritative setting convinced the people who lived in the vicinity to assume that someone official had so designated the area and they began re-titling businesses and revising their addresses.  This, in turn, led the county authorities to actually insert the ‘town’ on their maps.  An actual case of fiction creating reality.  

But our author takes the transformation of reality through mapping to a whole different level.  One that requires more than a certain suspension of disbelief.  ‘The map room came to life as it had in the previous viewings of the security footage.  The murderous intruder appeared, triggering the camera, and began searching the room.  And the door was there in the back wall where they knew there was no door.  They hit pause and jumped back in time to the security guard’s first nine o’clock walking check.  There was no door.  This didn’t make sense, they both thought.  They skipped forward to the break-in on the feed.  There was a door.  They skipped back.  There was no door.  They skipped forward.  There was a door.  How was this possible?’

But a willing suspension.  Enjoy.  The world of cartography may not be, in truth, such a cut-throat profession or one so sexy, but that’s the way of murderous fantasies.  And, throughout, there’s an enlightening amount of information on the nature of cartography on display.  Just keep in mind ‘the paradox that even if a map could be perfect, every bit of data completely measurable and knowable, the world it represents isn’t.’

Peng Shepherd The Cartographers (New York: William Morrow, 2022), pp. 391  ISBN: 9780062910691  $27.99

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About the author
G.T. Dempsey
G.T. Dempsey is a Research Associate in the history of Late Antiquity at the University of California at Davis and, as a retired American career diplomat, he is also a commentator on American foreign policy.

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