Full disclosure compels me to begin with a caveat and an admonition.
The qualification for this month’s column is that I haven’t so much as touched a book in nearly a month, let alone read one. So if you’re looking to get the latest word on the hot thrillers of the moment, you’ll have to wait or look elsewhere. We’re all out.
It’s not all my fault, however, which leads to the admonition: watch out for the redcoats. America’s little insurgency might have been over some 200 years, but the Brits are still a threat. It is my full intention to return to Her Majesty’s shores in short order, seeking full restitution.
It all started with a book, of course. Before my little incident earlier this month, I was engaged in a bit of research inspired by a British comedian and part-time rabble-rouser named Mark Thomas. I first ran across Thomas on the B-side of a reasonably rare performance by Eddie Izzard called Live At Club Class. On this particular recording, Eddie had done his whole mumbling-about-trivia racket, which is always good fun in and unto itself.
But the second side had Thomas quietly explaining that he wasn’t in fact a stand-up comic but that he was willing to tell the audience a story. He proceeded to blow my mind with a tightly composed yet seemingly off-the-cuff circular fable about an acid burnout, a missionary zealot and Satan all coming to receive their just desserts during one particularly outlandish year at the Glastonbury Festival.
Thomas has since become one of the UK’s best-known political activists and recently published his first book, a particularly venomous examination of the international arms trade titled As Used on the Famous Nelson Mandela: Underground Adventures in the Arms & Torture Trade. It’s a profoundly one-sided and egotistical account during which Thomas challenges the supposedly liberal Labour government, quizzes several arms dealers about the consequences of their trade, disrupts the UK’s annual weapons expo, and encourages a group of students to set themselves up as arms dealers -- just to see if it can be done. It’s also funny as hell and deeply disturbing. It’s a little tough to find in the States, although a new edition has just been released by Ebury Press.
In the spirit of Mark’s conscientious objections, I surprised myself when a source for another project invited me out to the local gun club to see how a police caliber pistol works, and I accepted. I came along not out of any lingering affection for handguns but out of Mark’s interesting perspective that to understand the things to which you object, you have to be willing to engage those who embrace them.
The Rod and Gun Club is an institution in New England dating back to the colonies. In my own experience, it seems to be the appropriate outlet for well-to-do gentlemen to spend Sunday mornings avoiding their wives and children and interrupting my sleep by firing off combat shotguns in ceaseless order. There’s very little “rod” involved, if you catch my drift.
The long and the short of the story is that, yes, I got to experience the firing of a Glock 22 favored by the Baltimore Police Department, the FBI and other bastions of law enforcement. I can only hope it was worth the trouble that followed.
On the other hand, I could have done without that pasty salesman with the muzzle loader that exploded while we were wrapping up. The sound of gunpowder exploding makes a more hushed sound than the cacophonous din of modern bullets but the sudden shock of even a minor explosion will still bring you to your knees.
It turns out he was working with blanks preparing for next year’s reenactment of the battle of Lexington and Concord when his misfire peppered me with gunpowder. Naturally, he had to be playing a British trooper practicing his front-rank-kneel action. I would have been better off hiding in the trees like the rebels.
So I’ve been virtually blind for a week, laid up with headaches while homemade gunpowder works its way out of my skin. I’ll recover but right now I make Jake Gittes look good by comparison.
Of course, if you’ve gotten this far, I hate to disappoint you. I’ve been hooked up to headphones the entire time, amassing a fat plastic slab of audio books to recommend.
The first selection is something of an experiment by the venerable writers of the International Thriller Writers. The Chopin Manuscript, which was kindly provided to me in unadulterated form by Audible.com after hearing my plight, is a serial novel being provided exclusively as fourteen discrete chapters. It’s an interesting experiment, albeit a somewhat stuttering one due to the wide diversity of the authors involved, a judgment traditionally delivered upon similar projects like the Floridian novel Naked Came the Manatee and the Irish-crafted Finbar’s Hotel.
Jeffrey Deaver originates the premise, a fairly traditional hunt-and-flee thriller involving an original score by Frédéric Chopin that bears a secret (of course) and has been squirreled away by the Nazis in a church in Kosovo. It presently winds up in the hands of Harry Middleton, a former war crimes inspector, who soon finds himself on the run from federal agents, shadowy assasins, and a man from Harry’s past operating under the meaningful moniker of Faust.
Among the authors doing the heavy lifting here are Deaver, tasked with both baiting the hook in the opening sequence and wrapping up the tangents and bullet-riddled plots in the final two chapters; Joseph Finder, who’s right at home with this kind of international cat-and-mouse chase; and project manager Jim Fusilli. Lest you think it’s a complete testosterone fest, the feminine aspect is ably represented by Edgar-winner S.J. Rosen and bestselling scribes Lisa Scottoline, Erica Spindler and the tag team sisters who write under the pseudonym of P.J. Parrish.
It’s a well-produced series with high production values, accented by eerie, minimalist piano flourishes. More importantly, the producers of The Chopin Manuscript have done themselves proud, first by not letting the authors read the chapters themselves, which would have detracted from the overall mood of the piece, and secondly by convincing award-winning British actor Alfred Molina to serve as narrator. If you’re hooked by Deaver’s reasonably convincing setup and Molina’s earnest performance, you should be well satisfied by the time you get to Lee Child’s frenetic denouement, which finds Faust closing in on the titular manuscript.
“We have to second-guess a second-guesser. It’s about what’s plausible,” Faust says, nailing the mood of an untidy thriller delivered in hushed tones.
Invariably, others will argue with me about the validity of an author performing his or her own work and while I’m often convinced to go the other way, I’m usually much more satisfied with a professional actor reading a great writer’s work.
There are certainly exceptions. Neil Gaiman is one of those rare writers who understands the nuances and subtexts of his work so well that listening to anyone else read his stories is a lost opportunity. I mentioned to Lawrence Block once that I so identify his voice with that of his come-hither thief Bernie Rhodenbarr that I find it jarring to hear him read in the voice of Keller, the hit man, or god forbid, Matthew Scudder (who will always sound in my head like present-day Mickey Rourke).
But pitting a truly professional actor against the microphone is generally a much more intellectually interesting application of their art. Hell, it can even elevate a flaccid novel or put a new spin on an old favorite. Run off to iTunes and sample Julia Roberts reading The Nanny Diaries and Matt Dillon chewing the scenery of On the Road for starters, and that’s without even getting into the full-on crazy of the abridged cast production of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which seems to have since been replaced by an unfortunate and languid reading by Ron McLarty.
Marrying a great actor to a great novel is astonishing and I’ll give you a couple of examples from my own survey of audible literature to leave you hanging this month.
Elmore Leonard is one of the authors in our wildly diverse genre that seems to always inspire a great performance. It’s well-documented that the film adaptation of his novels were hit and miss up until Out of Sight and Get Shorty and it was always for the same reason: the filmmakers strayed too far from the source material (see: Burt Reynolds in Stick, anybody in either version of The Big Bounce, Roy Scheider in 52 Pick-up. The list goes on and on, all the way back to Glenn Ford in the original 3:10 to Yuma).
But with these new-fangled audio books, the actors are forced to stick to the script. I’m not crazy about character actor Arliss Howard’s understated performances of Leonard’s most recent entries The Hot Kid and Up In Honey’s Room, but there are some killer portrayals in his back catalogue. To accent the recent remake of 3:10 to Yuma, somebody at Harper Audio got the bright idea of tasking post-punk icon Henry Rollins to take on the original 1953 short story, and it’s a terrific performance, pouring all of Henry’s genuine bravado into the postmodern and fairly bleak western noir.
There are handfuls of great performances of Leonard’s catalogue, although unfortunately, many of them remain abridged. A surprisingly capable Bruce Boxleitner rescues the ill-fated and aforementioned The Big Bounce, playing Jack Ryan without the laconic surfer vibe that other actors have brought to the character. A very game Taye Diggs brings his own stage experience to the forefront with his unabridged performance of the story collection When the Women Come Out To Dance, featuring a dead-on portrayal of U.S. Marshall Karen Cisco in the prequel “Karen Makes Out.” You can also always count on Robert Forster, the scene-stealer of Tarantino’s Rum Punch adaptation Jackie Brown. He’s not my first choice for 2005 comic caper Mr. Paradise but the aging character actor manages to nail shylock Tony Paradiso with style.
The best of all these choices is the audio adaptation of my favorite Leonard novel, Pagan Babies, which finds no less than Steve Buscemi chewing scenery like it’s his last meal. Buscemi, no stranger to noir from roles in everything Mystery Train to his own Trees Lounge to a recent meaty role on The Sopranos, is a revelation. He invokes a lounge singer’s creepy charm in performing convict comic Debbie Dewey’s standup act and then moves ably into occupying the harsh remorse of Father Terry Dunn, late of Rwanda, whose version of the serenity prayer goes, “If you can handle it, do it. If you can’t, fuck it.”
The trick in picking audio books is to start with what you might read in the first place, particularly those books you enjoy reading again and again. Let’s face it, the damned things are expensive and ethereal compared to a fat handful of printed pages so they ought to come with some value added.
One of the better adaptations in recent memory is Dennis Lehane’s Coronado, a book I ran down last year. The book includes four stories including the top-notch familial tragedy “Until Gwen,” as well as the two-act play Coronado, which is based on the story. It’s hard to believe that Lehane would sign off on the choice of Stanley Tucci, seen most recently in a ham-fisted role in The Devil Wears Prada, but the longtime character actor and director of the underrated Big Night, dives into the material with an articulate sense of his profane material, an interesting dramatic choice that puts the onus back on the work to capture its audience. While it might have been interesting to hear Tucci run down the play Lehane crafted at his brother’s request, its space is occupied nicely here by a short but clever interview with the author about the origins of the stories within.
I’m running out of time, and I’m due at the hospital soon, so I’ll have to quickly point you towards the best of the rest. For sheer entertainment value, it never hurts to pick up the numerous audio adaptations of the perennial Robert B. Parker. I’m still waiting for the day that Helen Hunt (who, let’s face it, has squandered the opportunities made available by winning the Academy Award) finally decides to take on the role that was written for her by Parker, that of the romantically challenged anti-Spenser, Sunny Randall, who remains one of the steadfast Parker’s more interesting creations. Until that pipe dream comes to pass, television star Kate Burton steps into Sunny’s shoes marvelously. On the male side, the aforementioned Burt Reynolds has been known to step into the virtual shoes of Spenser and Hawk, but I much prefer the more dulcet tones of Joe Mantegna, who understands the pacing and comic potential of the books so much better.
Down south, we find character actor Will Patton delivering the murderous bayou of James Lee Burke in the Dave Robicheaux mysteries. Patton has never really delivered the full weight of his dramatic potential onscreen but he’s always been able to deliver both the underlying menace ever-present in the books. His upbringing as the eldest son of a Lutheran minister and an award-winning stint portraying the complex males in Sam Shepard’s plays doesn’t hurt either. With The Tin Roof Blowdown, Burke’s most recent meditation on New Orleans and its fearful new world in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, he’s certainly got some weighty material to perform.
Finally, if you’re going to pick one audio adaptation to whet your whistle, I can do no better than to point you towards a dead man. The experience won’t even cost you anything. Walk into any public library in the country and bypass the compact discs, heading directly for the aging, melted, slightly dank corner where they keep the books on tape. There you’ll find a host of terrific, forgotten masterpieces by John D. MacDonald. Nearly all of his Travis McGee novels were adapted in abridged versions, and every last one of them was read by television’s original Night Stalker, Darren McGavin.
The actor, who died last year at the ripe old age of 83, came to the role with remarkably robust acting chops. Not only did he originate the role of Carl Kolchak, he also nailed the challenging role of Mike Hammer in the 1958 television series. From an early role playing opposite Frank Sinatra in The Man With the Golden Arm, he went on to become a television staple in shows like The Six Million Dollar Man and The X-Files and gave a beautifully nuanced, albeit uncredited performance in the Robert Redford film The Natural.
He was an odd choice to read the McGee novels but he brought every bit of his 1950s straightforwardness to the role and then went beyond it to tap into the deeper resonances of the books. His Travis is a booming, melancholy giant of a man while his Meyer is raspy, smart, and funny in a manner that completely belies the fact that McGavin is reading both roles. He swells to fit the sometimes overwrought part, yet delivers a certain tarnished glamour to McDonald’s errant knight.
“Maybe the people who fit have some forlorn fancy about perfecting themselves in their own image, about living up to some damned thing always a little out of reach,” McGee says mournfully at the end of Bright Orange for the Shroud. “But you try. You reach and slip and fall and get up, and you reach some more.”
And so we endure. I might be marked but there’s something to be said for any experience that opens your eyes. I have been blind. But, now.
Now, I see.