A British Record-Collecting Sleuth Turned Me Into a Mystery Guy
It came to me from my father-in-law. He said he thought I’d be interested in this book, “The VInyl Detective,” because it was about collecting records and I love records. “He solves crimes and is really into jazz,” is what I remember him telling me.
Frankly, I found his gesture insulting. Sure, I collect records, but I don’t read mysteries. I’m not a spinster with 20 cats and an extensive collection of old newspapers. I’m a writer and when I read fiction, it’s literature–the kinds of books you don’t find at a grocery store. If it’s not by an author of the caliber of Janet Frame or ZZ Packer or Philip Roth, I’m not going to read it. Especially if it’s a mystery. I’ve read all of Martin Amis’s books except for London Fields, because it’s a mystery. I hate mysteries!
But I’m not a complete asshole, so I read a little of “Vinyl Detective: Written In Dead Wax.” Within a few pages I was a book critic cliché and couldn’t put it down. I finished it within two days. I jumped into the next one immediately and finished that in record time as well. And I was through the entire four-book series in a couple of weeks, including “Vinyl Detective: Flip Back” (published in May of this year).
The Vinyl Detective series hooked me on the simple fact that the books are fun. The series follows an unnamed narrator–referred to only as the Vinyl Detective (VD)–who hunts down rare records for money. It would normally be a boring business full of charity shops and annoying record nerds, but somehow the VD always finds himself on a harrowing adventure. Every job he takes is full of surprise twists, close calls, and most often, murder. Or should I say, “MMMuuuuurrrduuurr?”
The series is the brainchild of Andrew Cartmel, a former Dr. Who script editor. Cartmel loves music and Dick Francis, and with the VD he does to record collecting what Francis did for horse racing. It’s a genius move, for the record business is just like horse racing, with characters galore and enough real life craziness to inspire dozens of stories. For example, for twisted arch villains you have all the inspiration you need in Morris Levy and Phil Spector. You need a reason for adventure? There are hundreds of legendary recordings worthy of an Indiana Jones-like quest. There’s even unsolved murders, like the mysterious deaths of Bobby Fuller and Peter Ivers.
Cartmel also tells these adventures in record collecting exactly as he should: concisely. His “four-on-the-floor” prose doesn’t do more than what’s required. Like clockwork, each chapter begins with a precisely-detailed scene and then plows right into the story. And yet he still manages to futz around. While plowing from one plot point to another, he’ll stop to describe how much the VD hates the coffee he’s drinking or how he made dinner. He’s literally gone through instructions for making pizza sauce twice.
Then there’s the cats. The VD owns two cats, Turk and Fanny, and you learn all about them. You’ll know what they did when they woke up, what they ate, how they act in the garden, etc. Reading these little cat tales made me think Cartmel was feline obsessed, but it turns out his friend Ben Aaronovitch (“Rivers of London” series) suggested adding the cats. Cartmel explained in a 2018 interview:
“…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.”
This brings me back to my original point: I hate mysteries. This is why. Mystery writers create worlds where inhabitants brutally murder others and then try to offset the heaviness with some quirky characters, like two Siamese cats named Koko and Yum Yum. Why should murder ever be a light subject? Not to say that a detective can’t tell a joke or two. It’s just that…cats? Really? The tone change from detailing grizzly deaths to frolicking felines can give a reader whiplash.
I should also add that the VD never deals with the cops. Maybe once that slipped my mind? Several murders cross his threshold, and he doesn’t once meet with the authorities. That’s just impossible in the modern world. At some point a security camera somewhere would have pegged him.
But that’s my problem. No one reads mysteries to be reminded of real life. Mysteries are an escape, just like fantasy and science fiction. If Cabot Cove, the setting of Murder She Wrote, actually existed, it might have an old lady writing mysteries there, but it would also be the murder capital of the world. Yet for 12 years 30 million people tuned in every week to see who died. It brought them a lot of joy. The Vinyl Detective brings me a lot of joy, so I shouldn’t ruin it for myself by nitpicking.
Now I feel ashamed for avoiding mysteries for so long. I don’t know if I’ll jump into Agatha Christie and Ayelet Waldman right away, but I’m certainly excited to read the next Vinyl Detective. Is it weird that I want Cartmel to introduce a Moriarty-like character who comes up with schemes to manipulate the record market? Is that what mystery fans do? I honestly don’t know. Nothing makes sense anymore.