We’ve reviewed a lot of books on the Pro Sound News blog over the years, but this one of the few that are fiction. The Vinyl Detective: Written in Dead Wax is the first in a trilogy of mystery novels starring an amusing London record collector whose life gets turned upside down when a mysterious woman hires him to find a legendary rare jazz LP. Naturally, the closer he gets to tracking it down, the more dead bodies turn up; along the way, readers get treated to a fun, light story as well as insights into recording and the music biz back in the day, all lending authenticity and, occasionally, a plot point.
While many mysteries give the hero an unusual job to give him some color, the nameless Vinyl Detective’s pursuit of records is anything but garnish. This isn’t a book where he mindlessly blathers on about why records sound better or rhapsodizes about the (nonexistent) joys of surface noise. Clearly author Andrew Cartmel knows this world, because instead we get treated to well-observed asides about the etiquette of record shops and flea markets; the patchy knowledge of recording that comes from being an obsessive audiophile; and the kinds of people who find an afternoon digging through musty rock records preferable to getting out in the sun.
But that said, there’s no way to make cratedigging in a moldy basement sound like fun to the average reader, and Cartmel is smart enough to know it. Instead, the story keeps moving at a brisk pace, taking us from crime scenes in London to a top-secret marijuana farm in Wales, to the seamy underside of Los Angeles and nervous moments rubbing elbows with the rich and powerful in Japan. There’s also plenty of gunshots, narrow escapes and women who somehow find a fumbling record collector who lives alone with two cats to be utterly irresistible.
Throughout the story, there’s plenty of real-world and fictional jazz history woven into the mystery, no more so than when the hero meets sprightly (and fictional) Ron Longmire. A retired engineer and peer to the likes of (non-fictional) Rudy Van Gelder and Roy DuNann, Longmire recorded legendary West Coast jazz albums in his basement studio—including the rare album everyone in the book is chasing after. Before long, he’s explaining the intricacies of baking old analog tapes, modern audio waveform analysis and more, using accessible language that doesn’t bog down the story for non-techie readers.
While Written in Dead Wax never quite grabs you by the collar, it’s a leisurely, enjoyable read that’s more about characters than the mystery and is engaging to the end. Music fans—and obviously record collectors—will all get a kick out of the Vinyl Detective’s exploits.