In fiction, the detective takes on many forms. The protagonist of a mystery comes in various shapes and sizes. Yet, when someone says “Detective Story”, our minds are conditioned to automatically think of a guy in a fedora and trench coat in a steamy office waiting for a babe to show up at his door with a case that’s too juicy to pass up, even if it means he might get killed. Even though that archetype is no longer the norm, it’s what first comes to mind. It’s always great to see someone take that framework and come up with something brand new while still paying tribute to what’s come before. In The Vinyl Detective: Written in Dead Wax by Andrew Cartmel, we see a fresh take on the noir genre by pairing it with the world of record collecting, a strange and mysterious hobby all it’s own.
When an avid record collector is approached by a mysterious women to find a rare jazz record for a large sum of money, he takes the job without hesitation. He needs the cash to pay for heating in his flat and to feed his cats. What he doesn’t realize is how rare and priceless this record actually is and the lengths that some might go to acquire it. Some might even kill for it. This puts the Vinyl Detective deep in the middle of a rousing adventure filled with trained killers, eccentric businessmen and a large number of “accidental” and “coincidental” deaths. But the thrill of it all lies in the hunt itself.
I can honestly say this is the first time I have read or seen anything by Andrew Cartmel. I haven’t watched Doctor Who nor have I read any of Cartmel’s previous work. What made me want to read this book was the premise. I do enjoy when the noir genre finds its way into the more quirky and niche worlds of society and the collecting world, whether it be records or comics or whatever, has its fare share of interesting characters. Cartmel takes full advantage of this with the inclusion of our protagonist’s friends and colleagues from the crate diving scene of record collecting. The excitement that some of the characters get over the pristine care of the cover, spine and groves of a record is spot on and gives a level of authenticity that’s needed when dealing with any type of collector. Cartmel introduces us to this world and weaves it perfectly with the beats of a classic detective story.
At first glance, this story could easily be written off as “What if Rob Gordon from High Fidelity was suddenly a detective”, but there’s so much more going on here. This book takes classic noir fiction and gives it a modern update while still showcasing the conditioned tropes and characters of old. We still get the femme fatales, the henchmen that show up at just the right time to foil the hero, the ominous millionaires who are untouchable. But this story allows them to better fit the current time. Cartmel pays homage without being a slave to the genre. This is also seen in the format of his story.
What’s most interesting about the book is that it’s split into two distinct halves. Mirroring the LPs that are the focus of the tale, there is a Side One and Side Two to the novel. The first side deals with the hunt for this rare jazz record. The second side deals with the reasons why there are people willing to kill to get their hands on it. This staging allows Cartmel to introduce new settings, story concepts and vital characters half way through the book. It’s almost like he’s taken two books and put them together as one as the first half could almost stand on it’s own with near complete resolution. While this might be a bit jarring for some who are used to a more traditional structure, I found it refreshing. It’s like finding out that album you’ve been enjoying has been re-issued as a special double deluxe edition. It was satisfying and made me wish there was more Vinyl Detective tales to read when I was done. Thankfully, there’s two more books planned to come out over the next two years, so I won’t have to wait too long.
If you’re a fan of noir and would like to see a more modern, everyman take on the genre, this is a book worth checking out. And if you’re a collector of any kind, be it records or books or comics or Blu-rays or whatever, you will get a kick out of seeing your kind represented in such a fast paced and pulse pounding mystery. This is definitely a good read to get through these dog days of summer. The Vinyl Detective: Written in Dead Wax is available now from Titan Books.
If you’re gonna geek out, GEEK HARD!