Written in Dead Wax, by Andrew Cartmel: A Review

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Written in Dead Wax, by Andrew Cartmel (Titan Books, 2016)

I set the mood to write this review somewhat more deliberately than usual. I made myself a cup of coffee and some toast with good marmalade, and carefully selected one of the few Everest classical LPs that I own (as of this writing), and put it on the turntable. Then I sat down to put a few thoughts in order about Written in Dead Wax, the first of author Andrew Cartmel’s projected Vinyl Detective series.

All of the elements that I cited are echoes of the story, so it seems a fitting way in which to set the scene. The eponymous Vinyl Detective begins the story with an intruder in his garden, who wants to talk about music. The detective rebuffs his unwanted guest, and returns to his desultory life of hopping on public transport with his Travel Pass and scouring the charity shops and seedy businesses of London for rare and valuable vinyl that he can flip at a quick profit online. A score can keep him — and his cats — fed for weeks at a time. Even a visit from Stinky Stanmer, the Detective’s university classmate and the man who has built a career as a popular DJ by stealing other people’s ideas and passing them off as his own, can’t entirely ruin his day, although the failure of the central heating can. By the heating failure, his cats are not amused.

But the arrival of a mysterious woman with a passing resemblance to film actress Louise Brooks and a predilection for knitted hats changes the status quo immediately. When N. Warren (she of the Brooks bob) appears on his doorstep to offer him a job locating a rare recording, the Vinyl Detective is launched on an adventure with a surprisingly high body count, and a number of twists and turns guaranteed to keep the reader guessing — and reading — over the course of some 450 pages.

The Vinyl Detective, having first passed a test regarding a missing recording from the Everest Records classical label, is set in search of a rare prize: the 14th and final release of a small, West Coast jazz label called Hathor Records. N. Warren has employed the Detective to find it for her boss, a shadowy figure with unknown motivations of his own. As he sets out to search for it, the Vinyl Detective finds, however, that something odd is happening. People who might be able to help him in his search keep turning up unexpectedly dead, and someone seems not only to be dogging his trail, but buying up lots of surplus jazz records along the way, as if to keep them out of his hands. Who has liquidated the collection of a mysterious jazz collector, and why do bits of his collection keep turning up at random shops all around London? The mystery deepens, and soon it appears that it may even affect some of the Vinyl Detective’s friends and acquaintances, sometimes with tragic results.

Apart from the purely invented Hathor Records label, there is a lot of genuine music lore in Written in Dead Wax (by “dead wax,” the author means the area of a vinyl record nearest the label, also called the runout, where a locked groove holds the stylus of your turntable to prevent it being damaged by running into the label: matrix numbers and other identifications are often stamped in the dead wax). Knowledge of not only jazz, but rock and classical is displayed, and Cartmel has created one of those people who seem to acquire knowledge for the sheer merry hell of it, because music is something that they really enjoy. Although the fictional Hathor and its players serve the purposes of the story, their names and biographies are merged effortlessly with real figures in jazz history.

Not only does Cartmel linger lovingly on the vinyl, but hardware gets a look in as well. The Roksan Xerxes turntable, a British-made high end audiophile machine which I first encountered watching the ITV adaptations of Inspector Morse, makes a token appearance, as do a variety of other familiar turntables, amplifiers, and cartridges. My own setup is entirely modest (read: inexpensive), so I’ve no idea if there are any subtleties that I missed, but almost all of the names were familiar. Names like Ortofon and Riga were bandied not so much, it felt, to make the reader feel small or to put them at ill-ease, but in the way that an afficiando of white wines will casually mention a Vouvray before a Pinot Grigio or a Chardonnay: as a mark of casual familiarity and appreciation.

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Definitely not the Xerxes, but still not a bad way to listen to music.

There are a few moments which seem haphazard, and a couple of repeated tropes which make it feel like the story is really being pushed to fill an unnatural length, but on the whole, the Side One and Side Two concept works, telling to pieces of a connected story. The puzzle of the mysterious letters in the runouts of each of the fourteen Hathor releases was pretty easy to solve (although I ended up being off by a letter, which changed the answer for a time), but it appealed very strongly to my nature: I wondered immediately at what the letters might be even before it was evident that they made up a puzzle. There is also a weird, ultra-modern synthesis at work here, where sometimes people send long and detailed letters (through the post, no less!), sometimes they send texts or emails, and sometimes they leave keys to mysterious storage units full of clues. It struck me as an oddly chaotic synthesis… much like the modern world in general.

The one thing which I found mildly off-putting was a moderate amount of casual drug use. Sure, it serves the plot as well enough, and provides the Vinyl Detective with a helpful number of tomatoes from which to make his secret pasta sauce, but other than that, it just felt unnecessary. It was reminiscent of people that I’ve met who insist on telling their boring stories about how they were high and something happened and it was so funny, or how they dropped acid on a beach in Michigan or somewhere, and it was life changing. Drug stories just don’t do anything for me. So I’m a square, so what? I’ve lived this long, I’m scarcely likely to change now.

Andrew Cartmel, who might be known to some readers as the last script editor from the original run of the BBC TV series Doctor Who before its cancellation in 1989, and his subsequent authorship of several of the New Adventures novels, has done a creditable job here. He’s created a story that I intend to follow up in a year when the next book in the series is scheduled for release. If you enjoy music, or vinyl particularly, or just enjoy a quirky tale well and briskly told, give Written in Dead Wax a spin. Four and a half stars. Nicely done.

Reviewed 1 June 2016.

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About Bill Bibliomane

Reader and writer, collector and cataloguer. Amateur mineralogist, astronomer, numismatist, philatelist: I have too many hobbies. I'm somewhat compulsive when it comes to book shopping. Fortunately for my budget, there are no bookshops near to my home. Unfortunately, I've discovered the Internet. I started out reviewing books for my own amusement. Now I've decided to assemble them on my own site.
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