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Listen Up!
(March 2002)
By David Pitt

You've probably never heard of Michael Beck (he's appeared in movies like Xanadu and The Warriors) but, if you're a fan of audio productions of John Grisham novels, you've most certainly, whether you knew it or not, heard him. Beck's performed the audiobooks for The Rainmaker, A Time to Kill, The Runaway Jury, and now Grisham's new novel, The Summons (Random House Audio, 8.5 hrs.). This is the story of a newly-divorced law professor whose father, a powerful jurist, dies - leaving behind him an estate in turmoil, and a deep, dark family secret ... a secret it seems someone outside the family knows, too. The story's pretty standard stuff for Grisham - although I must point out that, lately, he appears finally to be learning how to build believable characters - but Beck's excellent performance elevates the story to a level the print version doesn't quite attain. This is an unabridged audiobook (every word of the novel is here), but Beck smoothes out the rough spots and keeps us on the edge of our seats, even during the slow patches.

Another unabridged audiobook, and one that needs no help from its performer, is Elmore Leonard's Tishomingo Blues (Harper Audio, 7.5 hrs.), performed by the magnificent Frank Muller. I mean, this is the best possible combination: a novel by one of the top two or three novelists in the business, read by one of the very best audiobook performers. The story is delightful - a professional high-diver witnesses a mob assassination, and an assortment of people would very much like to speak with him about it - but, as usual, it's Leonard's crafty dialogue and off-kilter plotting that's the real draw. And then - oh, and then - we have the downright astonishing performance by Muller, who captures every nuance, however slight, of Leonard's narrative. Audiobooks just do not get any better than this.

Have you seen We Were Soldiers, the new movie starring Mel Gibson? If you haven't, you absolutely should, and you should also pick up the unabridged audio version of the book the movie's based on: We Were Soldiers Once ... And Young (Harper Audio, 16 hrs.), by Harold G. Moore and Joseph L. Galloway. This chronicle of the battle in Vietnam's Ia Drang Valley, in which about 450 American soldiers found themselves surrounded by a couple thousand North Vietnamese, is told in brutal, vivid detail by Moore, the commander of the American battalion, and Galloway, the journalist who was there during the fighting (other journalists showed up later, once the smoke had cleared). Johnny Heller's performance is very good - he finds a nice balance between just-the-facts reportage and gentle emotion - and this unabridged audiobook is, in places, almost as disheartening and heartbreaking as the film.

Hey: if you're a fan of Kay Scarpetta, the Virginia medical examiner who stars in a series of novels by Patricia Cornwell, you ought to grab Cruel & Unusual (Harper Audio, 12 hrs.), the unabridged audio production of her new Scarpetta yarn. This time around, a convicted murderer is executed, but the victims keep piling up; someone is killing off people who were connected to the killer's case, including someone close to Scarpetta. When confidential documents disappear, and Scarpetta is accused of professional misconduct, our hero takes up the chase; but can she find the new killer before it's too late? The new Scarpetta novel is the same ol' stuff, which means it's very well written, clever, and entirely suspenseful. C.J. Critt's reading is serviceable, but nothing special; this is one of those audiobooks where the story outshines the performance.

Here's another actor you've probably never heard of, although he's been around: Boyd Gaines. He was, among other things, a regular on the seventies sitcom One Day At a Time; he's also an accomplished audiobook narrator, as his performance in Jeffrey Deaver's The Stone Monkey (Simon & Schuster Audio, 5 hrs.) will demonstrate. This is the new Lincoln Rhyme novel - which, if you're a Deaver fan, should have you positively twitching in anticipation. Rhyme is a brilliant creation, a criminalist who's paralyzed from the neck down, a clever and witty and aggravating and demanding and thoroughly captivating character. In his new adventure, Rhyme is hot on the trail of the Ghost, a reprehensible fellow who's hunting down and killing Chinese immigrants in New York City. As usual, there are sharply drawn characters, ear-tinglingly genuine dialogue, and a couple of plot twists of the you'll-never-see-it-coming variety. Gaines's performance is dead-on (he makes Rhyme sound just like we've always imagined him). My only quibble: the audiobook is abridged, which means some of Deaver's splendid prose has been excised.

Here's a treat: the new novel by the wonderful Carl Hiaasen, performed by Hiaasen himself. It's called Basket Case (Random House Audio, 5 hrs.), and it's the tale of a down-and-out reporter who lucks into a story that could catapult him back onto the front page ... if he can keep from getting killed, that is. Hiaasen's performance is just as it should be: funny, sarcastic, dramatic, even elegant in places. I've already reviewed the novel elsewhere on this website, so you can check that out for the rest of my slobbering praise. Or you could just listen to the audiobook (which is also, unfortunately, abridged), and see what I'm making all the fuss about.

Finally - well, finally for this column, anyway - here's Ann Rule's Every Breath You Take (Simon & Schuster Audio, 6 hrs.). True crime nonfiction is all the rage these days, but Rule was writing it when the genre was new and fresh. Her books were detailed, compassionate accounts of horrific events; she never went in for excessive gore, or grisly photos for the sake of titillation. You'd never see a "quickie" book rushed into print to capitalize on the publicity surrounding a high-profile case; not from her, you wouldn't. And I'm pleased to report nothing has changed: while true crime has become a genre too-full of slick, superficial, quickly-written, tabloid-style garbage, Rule - and some of her colleagues - still write books that are a pleasure to read. Or, in this case, to listen to: this story about a woman who feared that her ex-husband was going to kill her, and who then wound up dead, is chilling from start to finish, but Blair Brown's sterling narration emphasizes Rule's excellent prose style and somehow makes the stark, gruesome details seem far less unsettling than they probably should be. The audiobook's abridged from the paper-and-covers book, but the story remains intact. And spellbinding.

Tune in again for more treats for your ears.
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