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A cheap gas station map may be the key to solving a murder in 'The Cartographers'

ELISSA NADWORNY, HOST:

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

PENG SHEPHERD: Hi. Thank you so much for having me.

NADWORNY: OK. So first, will you just tell me a little bit about Dr. Nell? She is this young woman at the center of the story. And, like her dad, she's a map scholar, but she's also had a professional setback.

SHEPHERD: She has, yes. So she is a young woman whose whole life and just her greatest passion has been cartography. She's lived and breathed it ever since she was a kid. Both her mother and father were giants in the field, but her mother passed away 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 thinks also as a way to get closer to him. But seven years before the start of the novel, they end up getting in a really big argument over this map that you talk about that she finds in his desk after his death. And the ensuing fight is so bad that he ends up firing her and destroying her reputation. And so she's been cast out of the only thing that she loves and also the only way she thought to get closer to her father.

NADWORNY: So tell me about that map, the one that she finds in the desk.

SHEPHERD: It is a foldable gas station highway driving map. I don't know if you remember those. They're a little bit less common now that we all have Google Maps.

NADWORNY: Many are stuffed in, like, the side of my driver's side door...

SHEPHERD: Right? Yeah. So...

NADWORNY: ...Bulging out.

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

NADWORNY: I want to talk about phantom settlements. You know, sometimes, they're called paper towns. What are they, and why do cartographers use them?

SHEPHERD: A phantom settlement is a somewhat obscure cartography term that basically means an error on a map, but it's an intentional one, a little dead end road that isn't really there or a small mountain where the land is actually flat. But the upshot is that phantom settlements work like copyright traps.

NADWORNY: So there's a phantom settlement in the book. It's based on a real story, right?

SHEPHERD: It is. It's the most incredible, real-life cartography mystery I've ever heard (laughter). In the early 1900s, there were these two small-time map makers who decided to make one of these intentional errors on their maps. So they made up a tiny town in rural upstate New York, and they named it using a combination of their initials, sort of like a secret signature. And then about a year later, their competitor, Rand McNally, released a map of the same geographical area. And to these two map makers' surprise, they spotted their tiny town on Rand McNally's map. And so they sued, claiming copyright infringement because they argued that the only way that their town could have appeared on Rand McNally's map is if Rand McNally had stolen their data instead of doing their own land survey because if they had done their own land survey, they would have seen that there was nothing there because the town wasn't real. And Rand McNally said, but the town is real. And so these two map makers - they had no idea what to make of that. So they got in their car with their lawyer, and they drove out to the middle of nowhere in rural upstate New York to take pictures of the empty land and claim their victory in court. They were stunned to find a gas station, a general store, houses with people living in them, and an official town record in Delaware County administration logs with the same name that they had given it from their own initials.

NADWORNY: And so what actually happened?

SHEPHERD: What most people think is that Rand McNally rushed to build a fake town there after they were sued because they were trying to cover their butts. But what actually happened was, when these two map makers - when their map first came out and there was that tiny town there, a couple of people who lived nearby in real towns saw this new name on that map and thought, oh, well, I guess a new town has been made for us.

NADWORNY: (Laughter).

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

NADWORNY: Wow. One of the things that drew me to the book was it feels like it's also about obsession...

SHEPHERD: Yes.

NADWORNY: ...Like, being so just all-consumed by your passions.

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

NADWORNY: Yeah. Your reaction at the top of you have to have obsession to be a novelist - I kind of relate to that, too, as a journalist of, like, I'm totally obsessed with a subject. And I research it, and I call everyone I can, and then I write a story. Then I'm on to the next thing. What was it about maps that drew you in?

SHEPHERD: You know, I don't know who doesn't love maps, right? They're so beautiful, and they're so fascinating. And I don't really know anyone who can resist looking at one that they pass by, 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're all hoping, even if it's a map of a familiar place, that if we just look long enough and look close enough, there will be some kind of a secret there that we haven't noticed before, you know, kind of, like, an invitation to go somewhere new.

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

SHEPHERD: Yeah, yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

NADWORNY: I love it.

SHEPHERD: Wait, we did just talk about obsession.

NADWORNY: Shoot. We did.

SHEPHERD: (Laughter).

NADWORNY: Everything is all just connected into one ball.

SHEPHERD: Yep (laughter).

NADWORNY: Peng Shepherd's new book is "The Cartographers." Thanks so much.

SHEPHERD: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.