I saw Victory Disc, one of Andrew Cartmel’s Vinyl Detective novels, in a pile of summer reads in Waterstone’s and decided to buy it on the strength of the cover before I realised that I knew the author slightly. For who could resist a story about tracking down rare discs by a (sadly) fictional British wartime swing band that had once done battle of the bands with the Glenn Miller Orchestra?
In other words, the Vinyl Detective series is about a man who tracks down rare music for a living. The story is beautifully set up. Tinkler, friend of the vinyl detective (who has no name, as far as I recall, in his first person narration), has had an enormous vintage speaker sent to the vinyl detective’s house, for reasons that are perfectly plausible. Its size, and Tinkler’s delay in collecting them, raises the ire of the vinyl detective’s glamorous no-nonsense girlfriend Nevada. When Tinkler finally opens them, the connectors have fallen inside the speakers, and when they open the back of the speaker to retrieve them, out pops a rare shellac 78rpm disc, which they put up for sale. And after that, one bad thing leads to another.
I’m not going to spoil the plot, which moves along apace, sets up elements of the story ahead of time before paying them off, leaps across the occasional plot holes too quickly for the reader to notice, or care too much, and has a satisfactory ending. The characters are archetypes rather than cliches: the millionaire daughter trying to set up a museum of her father’s work; the grand-daughter of a murdered woman travelling the country in her hippy van; the earnest and obsessive local historian. The writing is knowing with just enough of an edge. I enjoyed reading this enough that I’m looking out for other Vinyl Detective novels.
Andrew Cartmel? He’s a former BBC script editor and scriptwriter who worked with my brother on Dr Who back in the no-budget days of Sylvester McCoy or thereabouts, and was briefly hated by the Daily Telegraph and I think the Sunday Times for suggesting that at the height of the Thatcher years some scripts that included elliptical political comment might have snuck on air. Re-reading that faux-controversy now, it helpfully attracted some attention to some neglected episodes. (Disclosure: including my brother‘s.)
I’d met Andrew 30 years ago in my largely unsuccessful time as a film/TV development producer, but we didn’t find something to work on together. By coincidence, I’d been trying to develop something I didn’t mention to him, about a lost record, based on a story about Sky Saxon, a real musician who apparently made a record when he and the band were so high that no-one could remember making it or where the masters were stored.
I’d never found a way into the story, but reading Victory Disc I wish I had talked to Andrew Cartmel about it; because genre is almost always the answer.
And if you do want to listen to classy wartime big band swing, let me recommend the all-female International Sweethearts of Rhythm. As the announcer says: “Galvanize us, girls; gal-van-ize us“.