Andrew Cartmel – The Vinyl Detective: Written in Dead Wax
(Titan Books, 477pp., £7.99. Book Review by Chris Parker)
From Lesley Thomson’s cleaner sleuth Stella Darnell to Brian Eastman’s gardening detective Rosemary Boxer and Elizabeth Peters’s Egyptologist Amelia Peabody, the specialist, amateur investigator has provided a rich seam in crime fiction ever since G. K. Chesterton first set Father Brown loose against the criminal underworld in 1910.
Andrew Cartmel will be familiar to visitors to this site, courtesy of his erudite reviews of vinyl releases, and to the wider world via his involvement with TV classics such as Midsomer Murders and Doctor Who (for which he was a script editor), so his charity-shop-haunting, record-fair-regular vinyl obsessive with an encyclopaedic knowledge of jazz is a natural and welcome addition to the genre’s pantheon.
As early as page three, indeed, we are deep in a discussion of deep grooves and flat-edge pressings, triggered by a Gil Mellé Blue Note featuring Max Roach, Red Mitchell and George Wallington, and the plot itself centres on our intrepid and resourceful hero’s increasingly fraught and dangerous search for a series of albums released by an obscure (fictional) Californian label at the height of the West Coast jazz boom. It also involves a highly entertaining cast of supporting characters ranging from a feisty mystery woman and an obnoxious DJ to a dope-growing sound-reproduction technician and an accident-prone stoner with a grape addiction – not to mention a pair of utterly convincing cats which effortlessly steal every scene in which they appear.
Of course the success of such novels depends on the degree of naturalness with which the specialised knowledge of its protagonist is deployed in the service of the plot, and here Cartmel scores heavily, weaving his obsession with the minutiae of vinyl fetishism uncontrivedly into a racy account of amateur derring-do opposed to corporate ruthlessness. In short, this is a sharp, amusing and compulsively readable detective yarn packed with witty asides dealing with everyone from Sun Ra to Elvis Presley, as enjoyably accessible to the jazz obsessive as it is to the general reader.