High on my list of enjoyable things to do (if I had such a list…hmmm…maybe I should make one…) is poking through used record stores. You never know when you’ll find that one album you’ve been looking for, or one you’ve only read about, or just be intrigued by the cover art of a previously unknown (to you) musician.
That’s why the protagonist of U.K. author Andrew Cartmel’s new mystery novel The Vinyl Detective: Written in Dead Wax has such an appealing vocation – in fact, the ideal way to make a living for a music lover and collector. He hits charity shops (what we here in North America would know better as places like the Salvation Army, Goodwill, etc.) junk stores and garage sales, buying rare records on the cheap and turning them over for a profit.
Things get a bit more exciting for our hero (which is what I’ll refer to him, as he’s never named in the book, which is written in the first person) when a mysterious woman shows up at his door and wants to hire him, on behalf of an equally mysterious employer, to find an extremely rare 1950s jazz record. The record turns out to be a link in solving a decades-old puzzle. The only problem is, somebody else wants the record too and will stop at nothing to get it – even murder! <cue dramatic music>. Taking us from London to L.A., clues are pieced together one by one with just the right amount of humor, drama, and action.
This is Cartmel’s first mystery book, having spent most of his prior writing life as a scriptwriter, notably for Dr. Who. On his blog, he mentions that he finished the book and it sat unsold for years before a publisher picked it up. This publication timing coincides nicely, and probably not coincidentally, with the vinyl revival of recent years. I don’t mean that to sound cynical, as the delay in publication is certainly not for lack of a good story and the reader needn’t be a music lover or record collector to enjoy it. Though, of course, if you are, you’ll appreciate it more.
To be a devout collector of anything is a little nerdy, but Cartmel has an obvious love of his subject – it’s not just an artificial plot device. This comes through in spades, making the writing feel genuine and honest. Not that he isn’t able to see the sometimes ridiculousness of the obsessed collector personality type, and the character of Nevada (the mystery woman) serves the role of amused/bemused counterpoint well.
“Inspecting my [newly purchased] records, I was just thinking they’d probably come from the collection of the Unknown Jazz Fan when Nevada looked up from her phone and said ‘Who is this Unknown Jazz Fan?’ …
‘It’s just some guy who’s getting rid of his record collection, in installments. It’s a hell of a collection and I don’t know why he’s getting rid of it. Divorce? Moving home? A massive collapse in taste? Perhaps he’s like the vicar in Barnes.”
‘What vicar in Barnes?’
‘He had a crisis of faith. By which I mean he foolishly renounced LPs in favour of CDs and got rid of all his vinyl. And it was a hell of a collection. Perhaps the Unknown Jazz Fan is like that. Or perhaps the poor sap has copied all his LPs digitally and is even now listening to music files on a computer.’ I glanced at the records in my lap. ‘In other words, he had sent them across the digital Rubicon. Actually, the river to the underworld more like.’
‘The river Styx.’
‘You’ve really got it in for poor old digital recording, haven’t you?’
‘Anyway,’ I said, ‘I keep finding batches of records he’s got rid of. Here and there. In charity shops, at jumble sales.”
‘We haven’t been to a jumble sale yet,’ she said. ‘In our supposedly exhaustively thorough search for this record.’
‘I’ve got us booked for one tomorrow night.”
‘How dizzyingly stimulating. Tell me, this Unknown Jazz Fan. How do you know the records belonged to him? Does he write his name on the cover?’
‘Then how do you know it’s him? For that matter, how do you know such a person even exists?’
‘I cover that.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘In my blog. I cover it.’
‘I see. You expect me to read it.’ She took out her phone and scrolled down the screen.’ ‘Oh yes. Here we go. “Doers he even exist? Maybe it isn’t a person at all. Maybe it is just a statistical cluster, an analytical artefact, a certain population, a given age group, a shared taste, a demographic bubble…” ‘My god, you do go on a bit, don’t you?’ “A cultural profile, a sociology paper…” She looked at me. ‘So, to cut a long story short, the Unknown Jazz Fan may not even exist?’
‘That’s right. But that doesn’t mean he’s not out there somewhere.’
About Nevada – she’s much more than just a plot prop. She accompanies our hero through a large part of the adventure, a combination of femme fatale, female 007, and sensitive love interest. Though, (and this is one thing that’s a minor strike against the book), we never learn her background, or exactly what her real connection is to her employer.
I’ve read some criticism that she (and Ree: our hero’s love interest in the second part of the novel, a novel divided into 2 parts labelled, appropriately, “Side One” and “Side Two”) is merely a manifestation of “wish fulfillment” by the author. In other words, some readers feel the author is just writing about what he presumably wishes for: a hot young woman with a sharp intelligence and carefree attitude. But, well, why not? It’s the author’s book and the story he wants to tell. In a way, isn’t the whole plot a wish fulfillment of a sort? Authors usually write about things they know or things they would like to know or understand better, after all. Though, Ree – that other love interest – while an important part of moving the story forward, feels more like a caricature or cardboard plot device to me. Cartmel succeeds quite well, on the other hand, in his creation of Nevada, who remains a well-rounded character who never fails to liven up the scenes she’s in.
In the end, it was the little things that sold the book for me: the attention to detail that only an insider could incorporate so seamlessly into the plot. Things like the description of the fictional Hathor jazz label, which could easily have existed, as many similar ones did. The appreciation for well-made coffee that the vinyl detective has (even here, though, Cartmel’s character keeps his sense of humor: “When I realised I actually, for the first time in my life, had some serious money, one of the first things I did was to blow a small fortune on some very high-end ca phe cut chon coffee beans from Vietnam. These would arguably make a cup of the finest coffee in the world. I should have been excited about this, but for some reason as I prepared it at home, carefully grinding the beans in my little kitchen, all I could think was how much work it was. Maybe I should have just bought a jar of instant.”)
The Vinyl Detective: Written in Dead Wax is the first of a series, with the second installment (The Run-Out Groove, focusing on an album by a fictional 60s rock band) due in May 2017 and the third (Victory Disc, a mystery about neo-nazies and the rare recordings of a fictional WWII Royal Airforce orchestra) in May 2018.
I’m looking forward to them. I only hope Nevada is in them…I sorta miss her already….