The second in the Vinyl Detective series, The Run-Out Groove is as much shaggy dog story as it is detective novel. Yes, there’s death, attempted murder by burning alive, and all sorts of other dark and violent goings-on, but the book’s tone is so light and its voice so off-handedly charming that it doesn’t register as ferocious. Instead, it has the feel of a yarn spun by a friend over a couple of drinks, and the telling is too good for you to call bull on any of the more outlandish aspects.
The premise is simple enough: the hero of the series, the aforementioned Vinyl Detective (real name not given), gets hired to find a rare 45 that hopefully will lead to a long-lost child. And not just any child, the missing son of legendary 60s rock star Valerian, who committed suicide after her son was abducted. Or so goes the story. Very quickly the Vinyl Detective and his motley band of friends are enmeshed in the mystery of the missing child, which has them both hobnobbing with rock-and-roll legends and marked for death by mysterious forces.
Author Andrew Cartmel does a good job taking the wonkiness of record collecting and making it work for the plot, with the main character’s eager delving into obscure sources for vinyl used both for and against him. Indeed, the title refers to the lead-out groove on a record, which in the case of Valerian’s uber-rare last single supposedly contains a secret message from the performer. Hence, the Vinyl Detective’s being hired to find the disc, and all the shenanigans that come after. Thankfully, the collector jargon doesn’t get too thick on the ground, and Cartmel is able to share the joy of the find as well as the thrill of the hunt, something that’s all too often gone from our digital age.
Perhaps the biggest joy to be found in the story is in the Vinyl Detective’s crew of associates. These include his eminently sensible partner Nevada, the statuesque Clean Head, feckless but surprisingly effective friend Tinkler, and the all-important cats, who serve as a courier service to another acquaintance currently locked up in rehab in a facility beyond the back garden. Their personalities infuse the book with much of its character, and their collecting foibles – Nevada hunts vintage clothes, while Clean Head is a book collector and Tinkler’s after damn near anything that looks interesting – add flavor to their roles.
If the book has a weak point, it’s the ending, which has more than a hint of handwave about it. But the offhand way in which the central mystery is solved fits the shambolic nature of the narrative, wrapping up all the loose ends in an extremely neat package. Whether mystery fans will appreciate the tidiness remains open to debate, but general readers looking for some genial but eccentric company to spend some time with will have few complaints about The Run-Out Groove.