by Andrew Cartmel
Series: The Vinyl Detective, #1Paperback, 476 pg.
Titan Books, 2016
Read: August 6, 2018
How did it take this long for me to realize that the protagonist had no name? I just noticed that now, three months after reading the book, as I was flipping through the book to refresh my memory — and then giving up and using the Internet to cheat. Other than the lack of name — he’s a very thoroughly drawn character, so much so that you don’t notice little things like no one calling him by name.
I’d initially thought of the book as Rob Fleming (from High Fidelity), P.I. But that’s not right — our protagonist isn’t Rob, he’s Championship Vinyl’s best customer. Someone who can talk to Rob about minutiae of music, who can go toe-to-toe with Dick and Barry in music trivia, who will be there any time they have new vintage records, etc. He’s an expert in jazz — and might as well be an expert in just about everything else. He lives alone, makes enough to get by (but wouldn’t mind making more, if he could do it on his terms) and loves his pet cats.
One day, a beautiful woman approaches him with an offer he can’t (and doesn’t want to) refuse — on her employer’s behalf, she wants to hire him to track down an incredibly rare — impossibly rare, some would say — jazz record. It’s rare enough that even the reissues are nigh-impossible to track down.
They’ve not been looking for long, until it’s clear that there are a couple of other people who are actively looking for the record (in addition to a handful of people who always have an eye out for it). Then a fellow jazz aficionado is attacked — and money and violence start surfacing around the vintage vinyl circuit in London. Because that’s a thing that happens.
At some point, our protagonist starts to realize there are reasons beyond wanting a complete jazz collection to have the originals, and in conjunction with someone with family ties to the records, he plunges further into the hunt for the record and to uncover whatever dark and violent secrets that are being kept by the record.
This is not a story that should work. But it does — it absolutely does. It sort of makes sense that this quest starts to involve violence, lethal violence — and that both sides are prepared for it. The protagonist’s reaction to it all is what sells it. This is a guy who just wants to spend time with his cats, track down and listen to good music, and maybe enjoy some female company. He doesn’t expect to get plunged into some strange international quest, he doesn’t expect to fear for his life, or to have to outsmart people who are prepared to do him harm. It’s this nameless guy, the Vinyl Detective, who makes it all work.
In addition to the contemporary hunt for the record (which turns into a hunt for records), there’s the story behind the making of the records, the people involved, the reason that people are willing to spend a lot of money to recover the records (in addition to everything else they’re willing to do). It’s fascinating, believable stuff — especially the backstory to the recordings. I’d 100% believe that all the backstory actually happened that way, and that Cartmel used that true story as something to frame his novel around.
I don’t know how to adequately capture this book (note how long it’s taken me to post anything), it’s a very clever story, very well told. It’s exciting, it’s funny (at times), it’s heartfelt, it’s everything you want in a thriller within a world you don’t really think that much about. Not only does this strange premise hold-up well, it’s apparently good enough to spawn at least three sequels (two published, one on the way). Don’t ask me how it works — well, it has a lot to do with Cartmel’s skill and charm.
Give this guy a shot — you’ll be glad you did (and you’ll wish you could listen to his record collection).