Friday, March 15, 2013

Doing Max Vinyl: An independent book review

A fun thriller

Some books are just plain fun to read — like Frederick Lee Brooke’s Doing Max Vinyl.

This is a book that succeeds on several levels. First, it’s a perfectly crafted crime-thriller with a believable, sympathetic protagonist in Annie Ogden and a watertight plot. Second, all the characters are drawn from real life. Third, the writing is flawless, the style smooth and professional. And it’s full of observational humour. The laughs come from recognition — you know people like this, you’ve heard people say these things and you can easily picture them in the situations that Fred Brooke creates.

The plot

Max Vinyl is the owner of Tri-State Recylcing (TSR) in Chicago; on the day that he sells 20 percent of his company to Korean investors, his general manager fires the receptionist for spying on the company. The trouble is, the receptionist, Tris, is also Max’s girlfriend.

Tris, it turns out, is a “tree-hugger” according to the general manager, Manny Rodriguez. Manny had caught Tris snooping through some sensitive files and suspected she was going to blow the whistle on TSR’s less-than-environmentally friendly activities.

Those questionable practices? TSR recycles computers and other electronics. The law requires that companies dispose of their obsolete electronic equipment in such a way that harmful chemicals do not leak into soil, water or air. As a result, businesses pay recycling companies to dispose of their old computers, monitors, printers and other equipment properly. TSR charges to haul away the old equipment, then makes more money by reselling the best items. Any that it cannot sell, it disassembles, recycles, reuses or disposes of in an environmentally responsible manner.

Waste electronics represent two percent of the USA’s trash in landfills,
but 70 percent of overall toxic waste, according to e-waste workshop.
Image: Creative Commons.
 That’s what it tells the world on its website. What it really does, though, is pick the best, most sellable items from its incoming stream of used equipment — truckloads every day — and sell them through its website. TSR then dups eight to ten dumpsters into Lake Michigan every night.

Max has hired a number of ex-cons for the heavy work. Two in particular pilot the barge and dump the trash: Ike and Tranny. These two have the funniest antics in the book, especially the way that Tranny will say the opposite of what he means, then insist that’s not what he said.

“I get tired of always having to come up with the ideas, and you just say no to everything. How about you try saying no for a change and I get to have some ideas?”

“You mean I should come up with the ideas, and you can get to say no?”

“That’s what I said, stupid. Don’t try and turn things around that I say. I don’t go correcting you all the time.”

Every plot has to have a coincidence, or there’s no story. The skilled writer makes the coincidence seem unavoidable.

In Doing Max Vinyl, four very believable events occur on the same day:

• Max and the Korean investors agree to the $3 million sale

• Manny fires Max’s snoopy, tree-hugging ex-girlfriend

• a new laptop with very sensitive personal information accidentally enters TSR’s stream of trash

• and Ike and Tranny lose a global positioning system (GPS) device that shows them where to steer the barge and dump the garbage.

A waitress, Alison Ogden, find the GPS and takes it home because she thinks it’s a phone and her boyfriend collects old cell phones. When the boyfriend, Todd, tells her it’s not a phone, Alison gives it to her sister, Annie, who has just finished three combat tours in Iraq. Ike and Tranny track down Alison, break into her apartment and when they cannot find the GPS, take all of Todd’s 100-plus cell phones instead.

At this point, combat-trained Annie takes the fight to the bad guys to protect her sister. She infiltrates TSR and discovers its rotten foundation.

The characters

I could immediately picture Max Vinyl, the kind of sleazeball who convinces himself he’s a good guy while he’s cheating you, his wife, his employees, his business partners, the government and society at large. He overcharges his customers with rigged weigh-scales on his trucks, then dumps tonnes of garbage into the lake. He proudly proclaims he pays 25 percent above minimum wage. He’s chronically late on alimony payments and then pays his arrears with a cheque that bounces. Customers who have problems with items purchased off the website have to pay 90 cents a minute for telephone support. No wonder I laughed aloud when he falls face-first into a 10-dozen bouquet of roses after his ex-girlfriend pepper-sprays him.

Ike and Tranny kept me laughing, too, especially when Ike has to walk around with a table leg dangling from his forehead. The funniest part: he likes it!

Probably the most sensitively drawn character is Bob Olson, a square but straightforward good guy forced to bend his own moral code.

Brooke personifies the environment and Lake Michigan, too, in an original way that also evokes his humour. Bravo!

And Annie Ogden is precisely what I had hoped for in a female action hero. A former schoolteacher, she enlists in the Army and serves three tours in Iraq. She comes home with a new, confident attitude, a disdain for conventionality and a lot of fighting and survival skills. She’s small and fit, but not as young as she used to be. Brooke portrays her as very attractive, even beautiful in a diminutive way, but doesn’t take the beauty over the top like too many authors of female action heros. Conscious that she’s older than she used to be, she’s worried about the size of her butt — like every woman in the western world. When she takes on the bad guys, it’s absolutely believable.

The writing

Brooke is a pro. His skill with writing bears out his experience as an English teacher. The plot is airtight, the characters are likeable or hateable and recognizable. The style is spare and easy to read. I caught a few typos, but no more than I typically find in a commercially published book).

I found only two structural flaws:

• Two of the main characters, the catalysts of the action, Annie and Tris, never meet. While this makes sense in the context of this novel, I am sure that some putative expert will shake a figurative finger over this, calling it a major plot hole. It’s not.

• Somehow, the banner hanging over the work area at TSR that reads “MINIMUM WAGE PLUS 25% — TSR POLICY” gets replaced with the wording “Tris. TRS. Without.I.” Brooke never explains who did this (Tris, presumably), nor how. (Unless I missed it. If so, my apologies, Fred!)

The verdict

Doing Max Vinyl is a hoot, as well as a finely crafted thriller and a portrait of some real characters. I fully recommend this book!


Visit Frederick Lee Brooke's website.

Check out Doing Max Vinyl on Amazon.


  1. What a fantastic treatment of Doing Max Vinyl - thanks so much Scott! It's such a great feeling when I run into people who "get" the humor.

  2. DMV is my favorite Indie release of 2012. Beautifully crafted and funny as hell--please, Hollywood, make a movie version.