Readers of this blog will have come across my enthusiastic reviews of two of the books in Andrew Cartmel‘s Vinyl Detective mystery series (Written in Dead Wax and The Run-Out Groove.) The protagonist of the series is a sleuth who gets hired to find particular rare records. Along the way his searches end up involving danger, adventure, and intrigue. Think a somewhat more domesticated James Bond for record collectors. He gets help on his cases from his love interest the smart and alluring Nevada, and friends Tinkler and Clean Head (yes, those are really their names). So far, the books have taken us into the worlds of classic jazz, psychedelic rock, and big band music. Cartmel is currently working on book #4, to be called Flip Back, which will be partially set in the folk-rock and psychedelic folk scene of the late 60s/early 70s.
Cartmel has had a long career writing in many different mediums, including as a script editor for the Doctor Who TV series and as a writer of novels, comics and plays.
He spoke to me from his home in London, England on a warm summer day a month after the publication of Victory Disc, the third in the Vinyl Detective series.
Music To Eat: The Vinyl Detective series is kind of on its own in many ways, without clear precedents. What other authors or genres inspired the series?
Andrew Cartmel: Although I wouldn’t say it was a direct inspiration, I often refer to the novels of Dick Francis. I love his stuff, he’s a wonderful writer. He wrote very good crime and suspense novels and the point that’s relevant is that they’re always about the world of horses and horse racing. So, whenever anybody asks me how many stories there are about the world of record collecting I just point at Dick Francis – there’s really an unlimited number, because you just want people moving in a certain environment.
I’ll also point out Dashiel Hammett who’s a very famous crime writer. Before he created Sam Spade and the Thin Man, his first creation was “The Continental Op”, an operative who works for The Continental Detective Agency. And the distinct thing about the Continental Op was that he never had a name. He was a first-person character who remained unnamed [like the Vinyl Detective]. The same device was used by a very good spy novelist called Len Deighton in the 1960s when he wrote Funeral in Berlin, The IPCRESS File, The Horse Underwater and a couple of others. Those were all the same spy. Again, because it was first person you could get away without naming him. So, although I didn’t sit down deliberately to follow in those guy’s footsteps, they provide a reassuring talisman when I’m writing…that what I’m doing has been done before and done well.
MTE: So, do you think the Detective will ever have a name, or will he remain nameless?
AC: Yes, if there ever is movie or TV series it would be just too difficult to skip around and try to do without naming him, so I’d try to come up with a name. Of course, that’s what happened with Len Deighton, there were a bunch of movies – The IPCRESS File, Billion Dollar Brain, Funeral in Berlin – so he just called him Harry Palmer. He gave him the most ordinary name possible. In any case, if there is a movie or TV series, I think that would be a good problem to have!
MTE: On that note, have you had any offers for movie or TV for The Vinyl Detective series?
AC: Yes, we’ve had a bunch of TV queries and one serious meeting, which was then followed by a pass. But that meeting in itself was very interesting, because the producer we were talking to compared the series to a British TV drama called Lovejoy, which was about antiques. I thought that was quite astute, because it was sort of fun, it was crime and murder and it was about these rarities in the form of physical antiques. I hadn’t thought about it that way, though I’d seen Lovejoy many years ago.
MTE: How much is the detective modelled after yourself (if at all)?
AC: Well, to an extent, a huge amount because I’ve used the house where I live, the neighborhood where I live, the hi-fi system where I live, the record collection I have…
MTE: The cats?
AC: Well, that was very interesting, because I wasn’t going to include the cats but my friend Ben Aaronovitch who’s a very successful novelist – he writes the Rivers of London books which I’d like to put in a quick plug for, they’re wonderful – Ben insisted I include the cats and he was right because people adore the cats and the thing is, for anybody who hasn’t read the books: they’re not a major character but they’re a piece of the background and they help bring the environment to life. What you need in a mystery, crime or suspense novel is a background of normality to bounce the scary and abnormal things off and this is part of that domestic normality.
So yes, he’s got my house, my record collection, my tastes…in fact, tonight I just cooked a recipe which I think I’ll put into the next book because he cooks like me. But there are differences, for instance he’s a coffee connoisseur and I never drink coffee or tea. Also, he’s more practical than I am – he installed the heating system in his house in book one, but I hired somebody to do that, so there’s some clear blue water between us.
MTE: You co-write some of the Rivers of London graphic novels with Ben Aaronovitch, don’t you?
AC: Yes, I co-write all of them, which is true in the sense that Ben and I between us write them all. The way it worked out, is that Ben got the offer to do the graphic novels [a spin-off from the novel series] – they’re actually monthly comics which are then collected as graphic novels – but he knew that he was too busy to do it solo so he enlisted my help. So for the first story, which was called Body Work, Ben and I sat down and wrote it as a close collaboration. But since then we’ve sort of naturally fallen into a rhythm where he writes one and then I write one. So for instance, Ben did Night Witch, I did Black Mould and so on.
MTE: For the fourth Vinyl Detective book, to be titled Flip Back, which you’re currently writing and will be partially set in the late 60s/early 70s pyschedelic folk world – did you listen to much pyschedelic folk already? What are you listening to as inspiration?
AC: Well, I love the music of John Martyn and that’s kind of the music we’re talking about – that sort of Island Records stuff. Also artists like the Incredible String Band, who I don’t listen to but have respect for, and Lindisfarne, and others. It’s a very interesting genre and I’ve got friends who adore it, and as in the case of John Martyn, have certain excursions into it myself.
MTE: Martyn made some fantastic music, but I’ve read that he wasn’t always the most easy person to deal with.
AC: That’s what I’ve heard and that’s why he’s providing a fruitful inspiration for some of the characters in the next book. Just as a reference point, when I wrote the second novel which is called The Run-Out Groove, I did a gender flip and created a female version of Syd Barrett for my character Valerian / Valerie Ann. And, so it’s always useful to have a starting point for these characters, one of which in the new book is John Martyn and his music.
MTE: That answers one of the questions I was going to ask, which was who was Valerian modelled after?
AC: Well, it’s not a direct link [to Barrett] but they’re both sort of acid casualties, that was part of my thinking, and tragic loss of a young genius. But in fact, Syd didn’t die young but he sort of burned himself out and he ceased to write and he became this kind of huge, fat character. What I did was, I took that aspect of him and I turned it into Valerian’s sister, who also features in the book, and with Valerie Ann I was also thinking of Janis Joplin. Again, another tragic figure, and also in terms of the gutsy way she sang.
MTE: Yes, I thought Janis Joplin figured in, and maybe Grace Slick a little bit too?
AC: Yes, very interesting – when you say that, it fits perfectly but I hadn’t thought about it, but something like “White Rabbit” would be right out of the Valerian bag.
MTE: Was the Hathor record label in Written in Dead Wax modelled after a particular real-life label?
AC: It was modelled after a bunch of them. There were small California record labels such as Mode, Tampa, Nocturne and one called Contemporary Records, which was a great west coast label that was rather grander than the small labels I’m talking about. There were these little labels which totally inspired me, but in another way there was an east coast label called Prestige, which is a great jazz label. If you look at the labels, the actual physical paper labels on the records, the Prestige labels, I used that as a model for a picture of the Hathor record label. I commissioned a guy called James King to do a cover before I knew the books would be published, and you can see the Hathor record label there (the design was eventually used on the Czech edition) and it deliberately pays homage to the Prestige record label.
The reason why I commissioned a cover for my own book was that there was a period there where I was in the wilderness and the book hadn’t sold to a publisher and I was considering extreme measures, by which I mean self-publishing, but thank God I didn’t have to do that!
MTE: We know the music tastes of the detective and Tinkler but what would the other main characters, Nevada and Clean Head, listen to?
AC: Clean Head I’d have to think about, but I know that Nevada was raised with classical music and traditional notions of good taste and I think she kind of feels that she has to listen to classical music and appreciate it because that’s what “intelligent, refined people” do. So, she knows her classical music, how much actual fire in her belly she has for it is an interesting question because I’m not convinced she has a deep lasting love for it – it’s more like what she was brought up with.
MTE: Hopefully we’ll get some more background on Nevada in a later work, as she’s an interesting character.
AC: Yes, I do get a lot of questions about her as well as “our hero” [the detective] and there’s an interesting balance to be made there because I understand that appetite – to know more about characters you like, and hopefully love. But the whole point of a detective story is that he’s the guy that comes in and remains the same as everything changes around him. He’s the catalyst that remains unchanged by the chemical reaction. If you think of all the great detectives, that’s kind of what they’re there for. So, I don’t know how much more we’ll learn about him, although from time to time I do think there’s gotta be a story about their families one day. I think at one point one of their siblings or parents will erupt from their past and that will bring a story with it.
MTE: How much research do you do for a Vinyl Detective book and can you give us an example of the kind of research you might do?
AC: Well, regular readers will realize there’s always animals in the book and there’s always one major guest star who’s an animal in each book. I’ve taken recently to calling it the “spirit animal” in the book, ‘cause it’s kind of a totemic or symbolic animal. In the new book [currently being written], it’s pigs and this book I have here called Pig/Pork: Archaeology, Zoology, and Edibility by Pia Spry-Marques is supposed to be dynamite. It’s all about pigs and our relationship to them. As my readers will know, I’m a bit of an animal lover. I do eat meat now and again, but I don’t think it’s the greatest things that we as humans do.
Upstairs there’s a couple of big fat books about the folk scene, but a lot of the research I do is talking to people. And if I can’t go to a place I’ll Google Earth the hell out of it. It’s transformed the ability to research a novel, it’s wonderful.
MTE: Do you listen to music while writing, or do you find it distracting to listen to anything at those times?
AC: The answer to that is yes and no, because sometimes I do listen to music while writing and it helps, but as a rule instrumental music because it can become distracting if there’s a singer. The words in a song can interfere with the words I’m trying to create in my mind. So, I used to just listen to instrumental music but I now have a couple of exceptions to that. Anybody who’s singing in a foreign language doesn’t bother me because their language doesn’t interfere with my language – I’m not fluent enough in any other language to be distracted by it. And the other thing is if it’s a really good jazz singer like Ella Fitzgerald, her voice is so much like an instrument that the words almost don’t matter, it’s kind of abstract sound like notes being played on a horn.
MTE: I gather that jazz is your main listening interest?
AC: Yes, but I also have a great love of film music. I would say that’s my second most “avid listening.” By that, I mean instrumental movie soundtracks, not those kind of jukebox collections of songs from movies.
MTE: Are you a record collector yourself?
AC: Yes, but I try not to call my records a record collection because I’m all too aware of the great pitfall that awaits collectors is that they end up just being a curator of a kind of dead museum. The worst thing that could happen is if I just ended up with a huge collection of records which I never listened to. I tend to call my records my library because it conveys the sense of something that’s living and accessed and used, so I steer clear of the word “collection.”
But we’ve all got that collector’s gene in us, that tendency to squirrel stuff away and get too many things, which I understand because there’s a quick “hit” of endorphins. If you’re a collector, whether a stamp collector a coin collector or a comic collector, when you find that object you’re after it’s a thrill, right? But if you just keep repeating that like the rat that’s pressing the button that’s wired to the pleasure center of its brain, then you end up with a huge collection of stuff which you don’t really enjoy, so I’m very much on guard against that. I kind of know I’ve reached “peak vinyl.” It’s not so much that I’ve got too many records for my storage space, it’s that I’ve reached the maximum number I can comfortably explore and use as a library, so I’m actually in the process of getting rid of a few hundred records.
MTE: You’ve also been a script editor for Doctor Who, along with graphic novel writing and writing plays. How do you find the processes for those types of writing different than novel writing?
AC: The thing about a novel is it’s way more hard work. It’s months of work and there’s a vast number of words. The average novel is about 90,000 words. On the other hand, as long as your reader is fluent in the language you’re writing, in my case English, the story’s going straight from your brain into hers or his. What you say, unless they mis-read a word, they’re getting exactly your meaning. Obviously people will visualize things differently but there is no closer or more intimate form of communication in terms of trying to get your ideas unmediated into the mind of the reader, so that is the wonderful thing about the novel.
Also, with novel there’s a minimum of interference. As a professional artist, you don’t want any other people messing with your work too much. So, if you’re a writer you’ve got your editor and your publisher but that’s about it. If you’re doing comics, you’ve got an editor, you’ve got an illustrator, the colorist, the letterer and you usually have a bunch of people on the editorial side and a bunch of people on the publishing – there’s a lot of interference. If you’re doing TV, there’s more and I believe in films there’s more still. So, you’ve gotta be aware that your work could be compromised.
Writing a play is pretty good, you have to get along with your director and to some extent with your producer, but the tradition – and I think the legal situation – with a stage play is that nobody can change the work without the author’s permission. If only that were true for television and film!
Radio or audio is fascinating in the way it conjures visions in the mind without ever drawing a literal picture. Comics are wonderful in that they’re fast. When you write something, within a matter of weeks or a matter of days you see the artist visualize it and sometimes that’s disappointing but 99% of the time it’s stunningly exciting. So that’s a particularly wonderful and stimulating form to work in. In TV and movies, you see things come to life as well but it’s a longer and more diffuse process.
I’ve been working on this script for my new play Screwball for a long time and I sat down to try and read it the other day and I could hardly do it because every word was so familiar. But tomorrow I’ll sit down in the rehearsal room and the actors will reinvent that script for me and bring it to life in a way that it’s not when it’s just words on a page.
So, it’s a balance between independence, the amount of work involved and the ultimate creative effect you achieve with each of those media. Each one is very different.
MTE: Vinyl reigns in the books, but what are your personal views on vinyl vs. CD vs. digital?
AC: There is really ultimately no competition because a vinyl recording, which is analogue – I mean, you can take a digital recording and stick it onto vinyl and that can sound pretty nice – but a proper analogue recording ending up on vinyl is just about the most pure way of capturing the original experience. That’s because unless you’re making music with some kind of synthesizer or digital device, music is analogue. So, if you sing a song or play a guitar or a violin or drum or piano, those are all analogue signals and any kind of digital recording, although it is getting more and more sophisticated, will always be digital and it will always only be an approximation. It’s a different thing, you’ve changed it to something different. So vinyl is just about the ultimate way of capturing the true experience of hearing music…though apparently reel to reel tape is even better I’ve been told. But I’ve never been a reel to reel junkie and vinyl is good enough for me [laughs]!