A cheap gas station map may be the key to solving a murder in ‘The Cartographers’: NPR

Elissa Nadworny talks to Peng Shepherd about her new book, “The Cartographers”, in which the daughter of a murdered cartographer unravels the mystery of a map she finds hidden in her office.


A New York Public Library cartographer is found dead in his office. No one suspects the murder, but her daughter, Nell, finds something hidden in a secret compartment in her office. Why would one of the world’s most respected cartographers keep a cheap, mass-produced gas station road map? “The Cartographers” is the latest thriller from Peng Shepherd, who also wrote “The Book Of M.” She joins me now. Hello.

PENG SHEPHERD: Hello. Thank you very much for having me.

NADWORNY: Alright. So first, could you tell me a bit about Dr. Nell? She is this young woman at the center of the story. And, like her father, she is a cartographer, but she also had a professional setback.

SHEPHERD: She did, yes. So she’s a young woman whose whole life and just her greatest passion has been cartography. She has lived and breathed since she was a child. Her mother and father were both giants in the field, but her mother died when she was very young. Nell has basically spent her whole life trying to live up to her mother’s memory in order to impress her father and she also thinks of getting closer to him. But seven years before the start of the novel, they end up arguing about that card you’re talking about that she finds in her office after she dies. And the ensuing fight is so bad that he ends up firing her and destroying her reputation. And so she was kicked out of the only thing she loves and also the only way she could think of to get closer to her father.

NADWORNY: Then tell me about this card, the one she finds in the office.

SHEPHERD: This is a folding gas station road map. I don’t know if you remember. They’re a little less common now that we all have Google Maps.

NADWORNY: A lot are piled up, like, on the side of the driver’s side door…

SHEPHERD: Okay? Yeah. So…

NADWORNY: …its domed shape.

SHEPHERD: Yeah. And they used to, you know, give them out at gas stations, I think, almost for free. You would just walk up to the counter with your candy bar and soda. And then you would take a map of the next place you were going and continue. But that’s the kind of card she finds. And so, you know, really a seemingly worthless thing, but it turns out it actually contains a very deadly mystery.

NADWORNY: I mean ghost colonies. You know, sometimes they’re called paper towns. What are they and why do cartographers use them?

SHEPHERD: A ghost colony is a somewhat obscure mapping term that basically means a mistake on a map, but it’s an intentional mistake, a small dead end road that isn’t really there or a small mountain where the terrain is actually flat. But the result is that ghost colonies work like copyright traps.

NADWORNY: So there’s a ghost colony in the book. It’s based on a true story, right?

SHEPHERD: That’s true. It’s the most incredible real-life mapping mystery I’ve ever heard (laughs). In the early 1900’s there were these two little cartographers who decided to make one of these intentional mistakes on their maps. So they created a small town in rural upstate New York, and they named it using a combination of their initials, kind of like a secret signature. And then about a year later, their competitor, Rand McNally, released a map of the same geographic area. And to the surprise of these two cartographers, they spotted their little town on Rand McNally’s map. And so they sued, alleging copyright infringement because they argued that the only way their town would show up on Rand McNally’s map was if Rand McNally stole their data instead to do their own survey because if they had done their own survey they would have seen that there was nothing there because the city was not real. And Rand McNally said, but the city is real. And so these two cartographers – they had no idea what to make of it. So they got in their car with their lawyer and they drove to the middle of nowhere in the upstate New York countryside to take pictures of the empty lot and claim their victory in court. They were amazed to find a gas station, a general store, houses with people who lived there, and an official town record in Delaware County Administration newspapers with the same name they had him. given from their own initials.

NADWORNY: And what really happened?

SHEPHERD: What most people think is that Rand McNally rushed to build a fake town there after being chased because they were trying to cover their butts. But what really happened is that when these two mappers – when their map first came out and there was this little town there, a few people who lived nearby in real towns saw this new name on this map and thought, oh, well, I guess a new city was made for us.

NADWORNY: (Laughs).

SHEPHERD: And so they started moving there. Usually the world is what made the map, but in this case it was really the map that made the world.

NADWORNY: Wow. One of the things that drew me to the book is that I feel like it’s also about obsession…


NADWORNY: …Like, being so wrapped up in your passions.

SHEPHERD: I think you have to be a bit obsessed to be a novelist, probably (laughs). But I also think it’s something a little more universal than that because in the book, without too much of a spoiler, the map that everyone is obsessed with – for some characters, it’s the map. But for other characters, it’s really about the card replacing something else that they can’t have. It’s the next best thing. And I think we’ve all maybe felt that to some degree where maybe if there’s someone you care about so much but you can’t have them for some reason, sometimes, some something else that reminds you of it or represents it to you – this can be almost as powerful as having the person themselves. And so you sort of become obsessed with getting this thing.

NADWORNY: Yeah. Your reaction at the top of you must be obsessing over being a novelist – I identify with that too, as a journalist of, like, I’m totally obsessed with a subject. And I do research, and I call everyone I can, and then I write a story. Then I move on to the next thing. What drew you to cards?

SHEPHERD: You know, I don’t know who doesn’t like cards, do you? They are so beautiful, and they are so fascinating. And I really don’t know anyone who can resist watching one that they’re walking through, whether it’s, you know, a place they’ve never been or a very familiar place. And I think part of that is that we all hope, even if it’s a map of a familiar place, that if we look long enough and look close enough, there will be some sort of secret there that we didn’t notice before, you know, kind of, like, an invitation to go somewhere new.

NADWORNY: Oh, I love that. I started seeing maps everywhere after reading your book. Like, so many things can be a card. Like, even this script, you know, as I’m taking notes and following this conversation, there’s a card in front of me to do that.

SHEPHERD: Yeah, yeah.


NADWORNY: I love it.

SHEPHERD: Wait, we just talked about obsession.

NADWORNY: Shoot. We were doing.

SHEPHERD: (Laughs).

NADWORNY: It’s all just connected in one ball.

SHEPHERD: Yes (laughs).

NADWORNY: Peng Shepherd’s new book is “The Cartographers”. Thank you so much.

SHEPHERD: Thank you very much.

Copyright © 2022 NRP. All rights reserved. Visit the Terms of Use and Permissions pages of our website at www.npr.org for more information.

NPR transcripts are created in peak time by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative recording of NPR’s programming is the audio recording.

Previous Opinion: Browns paid too high a price for Deshaun Watson
Next LEGO Marvel 76208 First Review The Goat Ship Appears