The first in a new series from author, journalist and script editor Andrew Cartmel, The Vinyl Detective: Written in Dead Wax is a fast-paced crime novel with an unusual protagonist. Instead of the normal professional detective, here we have a record collecting failed DJ whose jokingly-produced business cards proclaim him to be the Vinyl Detective, by virtue of his claim to be able to find any record for anyone. After agreeing to help the beautiful, if slightly suspicious, Miss N. Warren find a rare record for her shadowy employer, he finds the world of record collecting soon becomes much more dangerous than he’s used to.
If it wasn’t clear already, this isn’t your usual crime book. A search for a rare record might not sound very risky but when it takes in the vicious world of 50s West Coast jazz and a mystery spanning decades, along with a collector prepared to pay vast sums of money to complete his collection, the stakes prove to be as high as any more traditional crime novel. Set for the most part in London and taking in many of the city’s most glamorous locations including charity shops, record fairs and car boot sales, with a last third switch to sunnier climes, it’s steeped in music history and written in a sharp, modern style that recalls his contemporary and Rivers of London: Body Work co-author Ben Aaronovitch.
Much like Aaronovitch’s Peter Grant, our (strangely unnamed) protagonist here has a quick, dry wit and is instantly endearing, though he’s (intentionally, it feels) less well defined physically than Grant – we don’t get much detail on his age or appearance, other than a sense of disinterested dishevelment. Appearance aside though he’s nicely drawn, as are the assortment of friends, cats, acquaintances and sort-of enemies in his orbit, with the only clear antagonists remaining suitably ambiguous and menacing. From simple beginnings the plot gradually expands to take in these other characters as our protagonist unearths a decades-old story of musical genius, extortion and violence tied together by the almost fetishised medium of vinyl. While the mystery unfolds we watch the Vinyl Detective come out of his shell and grow into a really interesting character, with one or two of his fellows nicely set up for further development.
It’s a clever idea that for the most part is executed well, occasionally suffering from slightly over-complicated jazz history connections but mostly coming across as refreshing, engaging and wonderfully easy to get lost in. If it loses its way a little in the early parts of the last third, by the time final denouement arrives everything has neatly come together into a satisfying conclusion both in terms of the plot and the characters. If you fancy a sharp, observant and fast-paced mystery wrapped up in the allure of jazz and the endearingly nerdy love for vinyl, look no further. With the next instalments already named and announced, there’s lots to look forward to from Cartmel and this character. Maybe we’ll even find out his name.