Sound interesting? It makes for prismatic, quixotic reading – especially if you’re a music lover with a vinyl LP fetish.
So juiced-up with colour, acerbic dialog, ‘40s film-noir style and black comedy is the gritty pulp writing of The Vinyl Detective – Written in Dead Wax that one instantly harbours a desire to go for drinks with the author, London, UK native Andrew Cartmel. Sort of like watching Dr. Strangelove and wanting to ring up Stanley Kubrick… it just seems like the natural thing to do.
Released in 2016 to critical praise, Dead Wax garnered a cult following. Fast forward to today and Cartmel’s fifth book in the Vinyl Detective catalog hit shelves in early August. The book series comprises Dead Wax, The Run-Out Groove, followed by Victory Disc, Flip Back, and the latest instalment – Low Action.
I’ve been reading the series for years and had Low Action on pre-order for months, so it was with surprise that I received a message from Cartmel thanking me for writing about the series when I was working a previous gig.
He was self-deprecating and funny, exactly how one imagines he’d be, plus he was keen to discuss hi-fi gear, ‘60s jazz music and science-fiction authors. After a number of emails it was decided that a visit to either London or Vancouver was in order when this pandemic is over (Cartmel’s brother lives in British Columbia, the province I call home).
This interview will be split over two instalments and Resistor Mag would like to thank both Andrew Cartmel and photographer Andrew Wilk for their time and efforts in making it possible.
Basically, ever since I could read books I’ve wanted to write books. I’ve never wanted to be anything other than a writer.
Part One of the Q&A with Andrew Cartmel
Rafe Arnott: Andrew, a little background is in order first. It’s safe to say that you’ve had a long and varied career with an incredibly successful arc that has seen you go from post-graduate studies in computer science to script writing and script-editing in the ’80s and ’90s for several BBC television series including the wildly successful Doctor Who. This was followed by the publication of your first novel The Wise, you then continued to pen several works of Doctor Who-related fiction, a number of science-fiction novellas and a long-standing collaboration with Ben Aaronovitch of Rivers of London notoriety. A novel based on the TV series The Prisoner came along as well (Miss Freedom), and now you’re helming the Vinyl Detective series of mystery novels.
You’re obviously driven to produce material that takes a dim view of pedestrian, everyday lives as many of your fictional characters are caught-up in the most extraordinary circumstances, or even leading double lives. Can you speak to me about where the drive and imagination to bring these personalities to life comes from?
Andrew Cartmel: “Regarding the extraordinary circumstances my characters are caught up in, I think really the distinction here is between literary fiction and popular or genre fiction. Literary fiction is often (but not always) passive, internalised, low on incident and very long on atmosphere and scene setting and characterisation — and crucially short on plot. Popular or genre fiction by its very nature is more active, external and dramatic with a lot of plot and incident.
“So the characters in the kind of stuff I write naturally experience extreme conditions and circumstances. Particularly back in the days when I was writing science fiction.
“As a reader, science fiction was my first love — Ray Bradbury was a god (his story ‘Frost and Fire’ blew my mind when I was a kid; if you haven’t read it, it may yet blow your mind too, whatever your age). I also revered Robert Heinlein (Podkayne of Mars), Lester del Rey (Day of the Giants) and Andre Norton (Storm Over Warlock). So when you ask where the drive and imagination comes from to bring my characters to life, it must begin with these books which I so loved reading at such a formative time of my life. Oh, yeah, and The Marvelous Land of Oz by Frank L. Baum, the first of the Oz sequels, was also a beloved book at an early age.
“Basically, ever since I could read books I’ve wanted to write books. I’ve never wanted to be anything other than a writer.”
RA: Have associations to Dashiell Hammett’s work have been brought up before? Particularly in reference to his characters of Nick, Nora and their female Schnauzer in The Thin Man to the Detective’s protagonist, his cats and love interest, Nevada?
AC: “I mentioned how science fiction was the first stuff I loved to read. As I became a teenager, though, my tastes broadened and I began reading crime fiction, particularly I guess what you’d call hardboiled crime stories, and mainstream fiction — even the sort of literary stuff I rather lambasted above. (For instance, I gamely worked my way through the novels of Thomas Pynchon, including Gravity’s Rainbow). My heroes in crime fiction were (and remain now) John D. MacDonald, Thomas Harris, Raymond Chandler and, as you so astutely note, Dashiell Hammett. Hammett is a big influence with his elegantly pared down prose style and his deeply cynical sense of humour.
“You are particularly sharp to bring up the Nick and Nora Charles thing. I had a rather cunning masterplan in mind when I started writing the Vinyl Detective books. The idea was to write the first one with the investigator hero as a lone wolf like, say, Hammett’s Sam Spade, who encounters a mysterious femme fatale and embarks on an adventure with her. So far, so standard. But I wanted this hero and the mystery woman to then get together and become a couple, a crime solving duo like Hammett’s Nick and Nora Charles. So, to put it in Hammett terms, the series would go from The Maltese Falcon to The Thin Man. And then remain in that groove. It’s a very pleasant groove, I must say… My hero’s cats weren’t included as a deliberate parallel to Nick and Nora’s dog, though. They’re based on my own cats and were included at the insistence of my buddy Ben Aaronovitch. When your friend the bestselling novelist gives you advice on your book, you better listen…
“Chandler and Hammett may have come to my attention by way of the Bogart movies (The Big Sleep and The Maltese Falcon) although they may well also have come to me through comic books. That sounds odd. But an interest in old comics led to a fascination with the pulp magazines. And both Hammett and Chandler started out writing for the pulps. Come to think of it, so did John D. MacDonald. (By the time Thomas Harris – The Silence of the Lambs – came along, though, the pulps were long gone).
“I mostly discovered the books I read on my own. My mother was a huge reader, but her tastes were very different from mine. She did, however, take me on my first visit to a public library where a whole new world quite literally opened up to me. Bless her.”
RA: Are you familiar with the website of the London Jazz Collector? The possibility it could be curated by you had occurred, as there seem to be parts of the LJC's personality and dogged anonymity in the books' LP-collecting, hifi-credentialed protagonist. There’s obviously a lot of you in there – do you populate your characters with bits of real people you know, parts of yourself? Tinkler, in particular, is an incredibly enjoyable and key figure in the series, is he based on a close mate?AC: “It's funny you should mention the London Jazz Collector. He isn’t me, but as it happens his name is also Andrew and he’s a good friend of mine. In fact he was around my place yesterday to have lunch, drink wine, discuss hi-fi and listen to jazz on vinyl. (We both agreed that Katanga by Curtis Amy and Dupree Bolton was the highlight of our day’s listening.)
“How I got to know the London Jazz Collector is instructive and very pertinent to the whole Vinyl Detective thing. You see, when I first sat down and started writing the Vinyl Detective books back around 2011 I googled the phrase ‘Vinyl Detective’ and it was nowhere to be seen. Great. I was in business…
“What I didn’t reckon on, though, was that it would take a number of years for the books to see the light of day. As they inched towards publication I would occasionally check on the status of the phrase out there in cyberspace. To my consternation, I found that other people had begun to use it, purely through a process of parallel evolution and independent discovery (it is, after all, a very cool phrase).
“Chief among these the London Jazz Collector who had begun to present a feature called ‘Vinyl Detective’ on his blog. With some trepidation, I got in touch with him and very politely suggested that he might like to retitle it so that when the books came out there would be no confusion…
“He was incredibly gracious and immediately agreed. So I arranged to meet up and buy him a coffee — and some cake — and say thanks. We’ve been firm friends ever since, and I’ve learned a hell of a lot from him about jazz and vinyl.
“But the term ‘Vinyl Detective’ had already escaped into the wild, so to speak, and it sprouted up in several other places. I just accepted this philosophically. I still believe I was the first to come up with it, though. (Of course.)
“As for basing characters on real people, there is always a little — or a lot — of the author in the characters that he or she writes. There can’t help but be. We all see the world through our own eyes and express our own experience. And then there’s also the low hanging fruit principle — when it came to making up the world of the Vinyl Detective books it was easy and useful to use my local environment. It meant the descriptions were solid, authentic and consistent. It also saved a hell of a lot of time on research.
“Regarding using real people as the basis for other characters. There’s surprisingly little of that in the Vinyl Detective novels. Tinkler’s hi-fi system, and to some extent his house, is based on that of a friend. But Tinkler himself is purely a product of my imagination. The cats Fanny and Turk, however, are completely based on my two cats, Molly and Jade, in every particular.”
RA: Over the decades have you been able to recognize a formula in how you approach creating new characters to populate the worlds you give life to?
AC: “I wouldn’t call it a formula. But there are a couple things that have become clear. Giving a character a memorable and distinctive name is half the battle. And you have to also allow them some autonomy. By which I mean, if you plan to have them behave in a particular way for purposes of your plot, and the characters seem reluctant to do so — in other words, they’re turning out to be unconvincing in that situation — then follow the characters’ lead. If their behaviour seems real and natural in your own mind it will seem authentic to the reader. It will also help you enormously in your plotting if you let the characters’ interaction and behaviour begin to generate situations.”
RA: Is there much research involved for each book? How long did you work on Written in Dead Wax before you were satisfied that it was ready for publication?
AC: “When I finished the book I realised it was overlong and I quite ruthlessly excised about 30,000 words. Once I’d done that I was satisfied with it. So it was ready about five years before it was actually published — but that’s just the nature of the business.
“Each book focuses on a particular genre of music, so either I know about it already (jazz) or I will research it (punk). If I have friends who are into that kind of music, I’ll talk to them, as I did with my mate Gordon concerning psychedelic folk for Flip Back.
“Geographically, I do try and do fairly scrupulous research and use real locations. Since I’ve established my heroes as living in my own neighbourhood, that is generally pretty easy (the low hanging fruit principle again), but they do also go roving further afield. And when they do, I’ll research the area, at the very least on Google Maps. If possible, I will visit the locations. My most recent Vinyl Detective novel, Low Action, had to be written in a hell of a hurry, so I set it around Epsom in Surrey. This isn’t far from London, where I live, and I had friend who was a local there who very helpfully drove me around to scout locations. This gave rise to some terrifically vivid sequences in interesting and memorable places.
“On the other hand, in my previous book, Flip Back, I completely invented the main locale. Halig Island was entirely a product of my imagination — though inspired by Lindisfarne. I was a little worried about introducing an entirely fictional place into the story. But the readers loved it, and often say how appealing and real the island seems to them."
End of Part One