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The Gang's All Ear
(March 2005) by David Pitt

Robert Ludlum Value CollectionIf you're on pins and needles waiting for Hollywood to hurry up and make The Bourne Ultimatum, the third in the Jason Bourne saga, here's some good news: Random House Audio has released all three of the Robert Ludlum novels in a boxed set (The Robert Ludlum Value Collection, with a total running time of about 9 hrs.). They're all abridged, which is good, since Ludlum's ponderous prose always could use a little pruning. They're all performed by Darren McGavin, too, which is even better: McGavin is a fine actor, and he invests this exciting, fast-paced material with a dramatic weight and emotional depth that Ludlum -- a fine storyteller but not much of a novelist, if you take my meaning -- never quite manages.

In a similar vein, here's The Stephen King Collection (Random House Audio, approx. 10 1/2 hrs.), which offers up sixteen stories from King's Night Shift anthology, all performed by the wonderfully creepy John Glover. Some of the King classics are here: The Ledge; Quitters, Inc.; Jerusalem's Lot; The Bogeyman. The stories are unabridged, because who would dare cut out a word of King's shiver-inducing prose? (These stories were written when he was at the top of his form.) You know how they say, about a horror novel, "don't read this at night"? Well, don't listen to this one at night, or even on an overcast day, not if you don't want to get a stiff neck from looking over your shoulder all the time.

You want more horror? We've got more horror. Cast of Shadows (Books on Tape, 16 hrs.), written by Kevin Guilfoile, is the shocking story of a physician whose daring -- and quite possibly insane -- experiment teaches him more than he ever wanted to know about the nature of evil. I don't want to give away too much, here, so let's just say the doctor's experiment involves solving a murder through cutting-edge DNA research ("ripped from the headlines," you might say). This spooky, thought-provoking exploration of the nature of evil is masterfully performed by Scott Brick, one of the giants in the audiobook field.

London BridgesSpeaking of evil, in London Bridges (TimeWarner AudioBooks, 8 hrs.), a new Alex Cross thriller, James Patterson brings back two of his favorite supervillains, the Wolf and the Weasel, who have apparently joined forces to take on the world. The Cross novels keep getting more and more fantastic; they also keep getting slicker, and more poorly written. Maybe Patterson's been writing too many novels lately (he seems to have a new one out every few months), or maybe he's just bored with Cross's crime-solving escapades. Luckily, we have two fine performers, Peter J. Fernandez and Denis O'Hare, who bring the often lethargic narrative boldly to life. This is one of those cases where the audiobook stands head and shoulders above the paper-and-covers version.

On the other hand, there's Lost Lake (HarperAudio, 10 hrs.), written by Phillip Margolin and performed by Deborah Hazlett. It's the story of a tabloid reporter who won't let her history of mental illness, and her disastrous relationship with her presidential-candidate father, stand in the way of proving that her much-ridiculed conspiracy theory isn't so ridiculous after all. Margolin is a top-notch writer, and this is one of his more engaging novels; it's too bad the narrator, Hazlett, never really gets inside the story. She seems too often like a detached observer, and not a participant. It doesn't ruin the story, but it dilutes it a little, lessens the tension. That's a shame.

No matter how far and wide they looked, I doubt the producers of the audio version of James M. Cain's classic novel The Postman Always Rings Twice (Caedmon, 3 hrs.) could have found a better narrator than Stanley Tucci. He's one of those actors who takes whatever material he's given and makes it brilliant. He was a murder suspect in the television series Murder One; a comic genius in the movie Shall We Dance?; an over-the-top villain in The Core. Here, where the material he's been given is already brilliant, he is positively hypnotic. He explores every nuance of this erotically charged story, wraps himself around it and makes it pulse with energy.

All the Flowers Are DyingAll the Flowers Are Dying (HarperAudio, 6 hrs.) is Lawrence Block's sixteenth Matthew Scudder novel. This time out, Scudder's investigation of a possible Internet scam leads him to murder, and puts his own family at risk. It's a bit of something new for the Scudder series: darker, perhaps, and certainly more psychologically convoluted. Block narrates the book, too. It's always interesting to listen to a writer interpret his own words, and if you're a fan of this long-running series you're going to want to give this one a listen.

The Discworld series, by Terry Pratchett, is one of the more popular, and more entertaining, science fiction/fantasy spoofs. (Think Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series mixed with Piers Anthony's Xanth novels, and you're in the ballpark.) The Colour of Magic was the first Discworld novel, published -- can it really be? -- two decades ago and recently re-released on audio. I bring it to your attention for two reasons: it's a good way to see how this increasingly labyrinthine series began, and it's performed by the magnificent Tony Robinson. If the name doesn't ring a bell, go immediately to your video-rental outlet and pick up the television series Blackadder, in which Robinson played Baldrick, one of the great small-screen comic creations. He reads this novel with an impish grin, a wink and a nod, a barely-suppressed giggle. It's a toss up which is more fun: the story itself, or Robinson's delightful performance. Either way, it's a must-have.

Also a must-have, at least for fans of short fiction, is Children Playing Before a Statue of Hercules (Simon & Schuster Audio, 3.5 hrs.), a collection of stories by various authors edited, and introduced, by David Sedaris. Each of the stories is performed by a different narrator: Mary Louise Parker reads a story by Amy Hempel, for instance, while Toby Wherry narrates one of Tobias Wolff's. Although the stories aren't connected thematically, except in a very loose sense, they do complement each other nicely. We need more short-fiction audiobooks.

Conspiracy of FoolsFinally -- for now, anyway -- there's Conspiracy of Fools (Random House Audio, 10 hrs.), Kurt Eichenwald's detailed and surprising chronicle of the collapse of Enron in 2001. Eichenwald's last book was The Informant, which was one of the best books about big business of the past few decades (it reads like a spy novel). It's hard to say whether Conspiracy of Fools is better, because that would be like trying to decide which of two pieces of gold is the shiniest: does it really matter? You've seen all the headlines about Enron, you've read the newspaper articles, you've followed the trials, but, believe me, until you've listened to this audiobook you haven't even scratched the surface. Stephen Lang's narration, like Eichenwald's prose, is vivid and dramatic.
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