Sunday, June 20, 2010

Inspector Montalbano

With the releases of The Paper Moon, August Heat and The Track of Sand coming up in August, September and October, respectively, I will have recorded twelve of Andrea Camilleri's charming Sicilian detective tales. Each is set in the fictional towns of Vigata and Montelusa, and each features the inimitable Inspector Salvo Montalbano, a moody, cynical middle-aged cop who, through a combination of plodding legwork, fumbling intuition and Javert-like persistence, always gets his man (or woman, as the case may be.)

The Voice of the Violin, the fourth in the series, won an Audie Award last year in the mystery category, which seems to have given the audio versions a long-overdue (in my opinion, anyway) bump. In Italy they are the basis for an enormously popular television series featuring actor Luca Zingaretti. Foreigners can sign up for an "Inspector Montalbano tour" that visits the actual locales depicted in the book (Porto Empedocle and Girgenti). Camilleri, a respected poet and novelist, freely admits that Montalbano has developed a life of his own, over which he no longer has much control, to the detriment of anything else he might try to write.

The English translations by Stephen Sartarelli are crisp and colorful, preserving as much as possible the comic energy, satirical edge and blunt violence that drive the originals. Montalbano comes across as a wonderfully complex character--alternately sensitive, bullying, manipulative and confused. Outwardly he rules his fiefdom with an iron fist, tempered by a malicious sense of humor and a fondness for practical jokes. Inwardly he quails at personal relationships and struggles with the eternally demoralizing nature of his job. He's not above acting as judge and jury, bringing a Sicilian sense of justice to cases that not only should never have happened, but perhaps should never be solved, given the moral complexities involved. He maintains an uneasy truce with the local Mafia, who, interestingly, rarely figure directly in the crimes at hand but instead operate at some level beyond Montalbano's (or anyone else's) grasp.

Then, of course, there's his unquenchable appetite. Unlike American cops and their donuts, Montalbano possesses a finicky palate which only the most exquisitely prepared dishes will satisfy. No Camilleri novel is complete without a dozen or more mouth-watering descriptions of the simple but elegant fare served up at a series of off-the-beaten-path, mom-and-pop-style trattorias--or prepared by Montalbano's doughty housekeeper and left in the fridge for his eventual enjoyment at the end of another maddening day.

The supporting cast are memorable as well, consisting of crafty stool-pigeons, loquacious witnesses, exasperating superiors, and endearing, alluring females (who almost always get the better of the men.) Montalbano's staff frequently lapse into a level of bumbling that brings the Keystone Cops to mind--Mimi, his womanizing assistant, disappears for days at a time; Gallo, who serves as Montalbano's chauffer, is a frightful driver who inevitably involves them in a wreck; Detective Fazio's obsession with administrative detail drives his boss to distraction; and the linguistically-challenged switchboard operator, Catarella, threatens to reduce each case to chaos with his garbled messages and crossed wires--but through native wit and loyalty to their beloved chief, they always manage to come through.

Some of the plots are stronger than others--The Snack Thief and The Terra Cotta Dog are particularly gratifying in this respect. Sometimes they are topical in nature (like the human trafficking in The Wings of the Sphinx), and occasionally they are simple frames for advancing the arc of the main character. Camilleri always manages to slip in some pungent political commentary (he's clearly no fan of Italy's current Prime Minister). Sicily's chronic woes permeate every book, and touches of discomfiting despair creep in whenever Montalbano rages inwardly against the hopelessness of politics and "the system." If you're looking for strenuous action, look elsewhere. But if you enjoy foreign police procedurals that are long on atmosphere, character and congenial wit, then these are for you.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Ross Macdonald

AudioFile Magazine awarded an Earphones today to my recording of Ross Macdonald's The Wycherly Woman. That's great news for me, of course, but even better news for Ross Macdonald, whose reputation seems to have languished in recent years. This August will see the release of my sixteenth Lew Archer recording, The Ivory Grin. Few things have brought me greater pleasure over the years than to revisit, every so often, the voluble, eccentric characters who populate a typical Archer tale--from hare-brained beatniks to domineering, jewel-encrusted matriarchs.

Mystery aficionados have deemed Macdonald the heir to Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. At a recent book club gathering here in Ashland, author Christopher Rice spoke of his indebtedness to Macdonald's mastery of character and psychological detail. And I get the occasional fan letter thanking me (and Blackstone) for devoting the time and effort to publishing his works in audio. But the general public seems to prefer racier fare these days--slashers and serial killers--to Macdonald's moody, sardonic forays into the human condition. Thus it's gratifying to see the audio versions garnering consistent praise in the audiobook press--not just for the performances, which is flattering, but for the quality of the writing. Black Money was even nominated for an Audie Award in the contemporary mystery category this year. Not bad for a fifty-year-old detective story...

Macdonald, whose real name was Kenneth Millar, was a complicated man who lived a complicated life that is reflected in the shifting moral sands charted in his novels. His wife, Margaret Millar, achieved early fame as the author of a series of taut psychological crime dramas, and is generally considered to be the better writer of the two. Macdonald himself struggled to find his niche, but when he did, with the first Lew Archer novel, The Moving Target, in 1949, he settled into a groove that earned him a reputation that has outlasted that of his wife. Their only child, Linda, died at the age of 31 after struggling with alcohol and depression.

I think it could fairly be said that most mystery writers don't lead lives that warrant lengthy, in-depth examination. Tom Nolan's 1999 biography of Macdonald, however, is well worth reading, not only for his crisp analysis of Macdonald's work but for his even-handed, if often painful, exploration of the closely-guarded inner life of this brilliant and troubled man.


I'll conclude with what I hope will be viewed not as self-promotion, but rather as a personal tribute to one of my favorite authors--an audio excerpt from the final pages of The Moving Target. It's also a whopper of a spoiler, for which I apologize, but of the many wonderful examples of dialogue in Macdonald's novels, this one has always stood out in my mind. It's a classic confession scene, but with a twist: Archer and the killer, who is an acquaintance from law enforcement days and has just married the victim's daughter, have driven together to the dead man's mansion. As they sit parked in the driveway, Archer confronts his old friend with his suspicions. It's not the typical, lame "I'll-explain-everything-before-I-blow-your-head-off" device, but a bleak conversation about a necessary parting of ways. It's characteristic of the moral stickiness that pervades Macdonald's work. My favorite line is, "I shot Taggart in good faith!"

Monday, June 7, 2010

Occupied City

Occupied City, by David Peace, is the second in a trilogy of disturbing crime novels set in occupied Japan immediately following World War II. (The first is Tokyo Year Zero and the third, to be published later this year, is currently titled Tokyo Regained.) To say that this a challenging, densely-textured book would be an understatement. The story is based on an actual event that took place in occupied Japan in 1948: A man posing as a health official entered a Tokyo bank shortly after closing, informed the employees that a customer with dysentery may have made a deposit that day, and suggested that as a precaution they all drink an antidote he had brought with him. What he served them was actually a deadly poison, and twelve people, including the custodian, his wife and two children, died agonizing deaths. Four people survived and were discovered crawling in the street outside the bank. The case set off something close to hysteria. The hunt for the killer was complicated by the fact that none of the survivors could agree on a description of the man. In addition, US authorities got involved to the extent that newspapers and police were manipulated and sidetracked for "security reasons." A middle-aged painter was eventually convicted of the crime on flimsy evidence. He maintained his innocence until the day he died, at the age of 95, in 1987. His family continues a campaign to have him exonerated. The "real" killer has ostensibly never been identified. An added twist was a possible link to Unit 731, the notorious facility wherein the Japanese performed biological, chemical and surgical experiments on live humans. The unit was discovered in the aftermath of the war, and US authorities hurried to cover up its existence, sensing that the "research," for all it's hideousness, was valuable and that it might fall into Russian hands.

If this sounds like it would make for a gruesomely thrilling tale--it does. But Peace couches it in unusual literary terms. He relates the story in Rashoman-like fashion, presenting conflicting points of view and resurrecting the ghosts of the dead along with the troubled spirits of the living. In Occupied City a terrified writer is haunted by twelve "voices": the twelve murdered victims, two police detectives, a survivor of the massacre, an American scientist, an amateur "occult" detective, a journalist, a gangster-turned-politician, a Soviet investigator, the convicted man, the relatives of the dead, and "the Killer"--whoever that may be.

As if this weren't complex enough, he employs numerous typographical devices to indicate, for example, a man documenting his own approaching madness in diary form (huge chunks of text are typed, then crossed out), or the three simultaneous thought processes of a young journalist riddled with jealousy when he suspects his wife is having an affair with an American soldier. To top it all off, a virtual encyclopedia of Japanese names and places is closely woven into the text.


As excited as I was at the prospect of recording something already considered to be a minor literary masterpiece, a first glance at the book had me scratching my head. A second, closer reading had me in despair. A third go-round found me ready to pick up the phone and tell the acquisitions department that they had wasted their money. Seriously. For the first time in a thirty-year audiobook career, I was pretty sure I had an unrecordable text on my hands.

Look, I'm not easily daunted. The Story of Civilization in eleven volumes? Been there, done that. Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones? Piece of cake. The novels of Roberto Bolano? Yeah, we pulled those off pretty well, if I do say so myself. But this?

Leave it to my wife and fellow Blackstonian Tanya Perez, herself a voracious consumer of audiobooks, to pick it up where it lay rudely discarded on the coffee table, read it in one day and declare, "We can do this."

"I can't," I said.

"Well, I will," she replied.

So, for the past two months she's been analyzing, organizing, collating and casting. I got the "easy" part--directing. Various sections were farmed out to various narrators with explicit instructions on how to handle certain aspects of the text, among them: Justine Eyre, an Audie Award-winning narrator who happens to speak fluent Japanese; audiobook veteran Stefan Rudnicki, who lucked into the role of the mad Russian investigator with the crossed-out passages; actor Bronson Pinchot, who voices the frustrated American official in charge of ferreting out the secrets of Unit 731; and Daisuke Tsuji, an actor with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. The anchor of the project is Japanese-American storyteller Alton Chung, who brings a unique sense of dramatic characterization and poetry to various roles, including the Writer, the Convicted Man and the Killer.

The project has come together magnificently, though we still have another week of recording and a fierce editing job ahead of us. You probably won't see Tanya's name on the package, but she deserves the lion's share of the credit for rescuing this unforgettable book from the "unrecordable" bin and bringing it to life in audio.

Occupied City and the first book in the series, Tokyo Year Zero, will be available in audio from Blackstone on August 1st.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Paul Is Undead

How can you resist a book that begins:

For some, the most indelible memory of their television-viewing lives was the moment Jack Ruby assassinated Lee Harvey Oswald in 1963. For others, it was Neil Armstrong’s 1969 moon landing. For today’s generation, it might have be fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, or the coverage of the World Trade Center attacks on September 11, 2001.

I realized television was more than sitcoms and sporting events on December 8, 1980, the night Mark David Chapman tried to lop off John Lennon’s head with a silver scythe.

Alan Goldsher's illustrated novel is more than your typical mash-up. It's a wide-ranging cultural satire that makes fun of the rock-n-roll "oral history" genre. In his quest to ferret out the real story behind The Beatles zombie-tude, the "author" interviews historians, psychologists, Liverpudlian nightclub owners, John Lennon's mom, and of course The Fab Four themselves, who reminisce together about such hilarious events as the time Ringo's arm flew across the stage during a concert, or George Harrison's fingers dropped off during a key recording session.

I myself haven't indulged much in the mash-up genre, but this one was so sharp and entertaining that I found it hard to put down.

The question was, since the book travels back and forth across the Atlantic, which way to go with the casting? Should we have an American spoof the Brits, or a Brit spoof the Americans? In the end I figured the Fab Four themselves had to be the key, so I sent the title to British narrator Simon Vance. Simon is a self-professed rock-n-roll history buff, and he recently recorded When Giants Walked the Earth, a biography of Led Zeppelin, for Blackstone. I figured this would be the perfect follow-up. And by all reports he has had a gleeful time with it. He tells me that, in order to preserve the integrity of the voice characterizations in the four-way interviews, he recorded each Beatle's lines separately, then edited them all together. That's above and beyond the call!

Word is that the book has been optioned for a movie, which ought to be even more fun.

Paul Is Undead: The British Zombie Invasion pubs in book form and audio on June 22.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Blackstone Cover Art

Sometimes we purchase cover art from the book publisher, or a film studio if it's a movie tie in. But for the most part we create all our own graphics here at Blackstone. Occasionally I pass through the graphics department and get hung up looking at the computer screens. It's fascinating to watch them build layers and manipulate images and fonts.

Unless you're a library customer, you probably haven't had a chance to see what these folks can really do, apart from the thumbnails on Audible or in our catalog. So today I thought I'd feature a few recent covers that caught my eye. (You can click on the photo for a larger version.)

This is Aaron Hoppe's cover for Tony Heald's recording of Elmer Gantry, which won an Audie Award in 2009:

The shabby marquee displaying the title is genius.

This is James Egan's design for The Man With the Golden Arm. We always think of the Sinatra film, but the book was written in the 40's and the cover reflects that:

Daniel Smith created this nice graphic for The Devil Knows How to Ride:

Andrew Farris's work for a gory murder-fest really pops:

Addie Black, who is also an accomplished painter, did this atmospheric work for the re-release of a stylish thriller:

And finally, a very cool design for Stephen King's IT. This was a co-publication with Penguin and we could have used their cover, but when Matthew Marley came up with this, it was too good not to use:

Tuesday, June 1, 2010


I've been noting with no small amount of gratification the positive comments on Audible for Steven Weber's reading of Stephen King's IT. We took a bit of a risk on this one--Weber only had two audiobooks to his credit (albeit very good ones), and our co-publishers at Penguin Audio were a bit skeptical, but it turned out to be a big win for everyone. Weber approached the thousand-page project with a gusto that was infectious throughout the entire process. Yuri Rasovsky, who directed the production, noted after the first session how impressed he was with Steven's preparation, commitment and sense of humor, which never flagged during the fifteen-day schedule. I'm told that after one particularly long and grueling day, Steven flung open the door of the booth and staggered into the control room, shouting, "Blood! I'm covered with...BLOOD!"

Weber's reading is an object-lesson in successful risk-taking. His depiction of the Denbrough family's collapse into silence and grief is heart-rending, particularly the scene in which young Bill tries to lighten the mood by telling a joke--an attempt that falls achingly flat. (Bill's pronounced stutter, which could become tedious in the hands of a lesser narrator, is marvelously rendered.) By contrast, the scenes with Pennywise in his various incarnations are ratcheted up to a level that has to be heard to be believed--and they work.

It's refreshing to encounter a narrator who doesn't seem aware of the "rules." It's not a tidy, pre-packaged read. It's a wild ride, full of unanticipated line readings and emotional about-faces. That's not to say it isn't faithful to the text--he is very observant of King's stage directions and character cues. But he never shies away from the larger-than-life (one is tempted to say, outlandish) quality of the whole enterprise. And while there's never any question that he grasps the size and scope of the story, Weber never gets ahead of himself. Every scene is given it's full value. Nothing is rushed or glossed over for the sake of efficiency. This "in-the-moment" quality, rather than slowing the book down, actually makes it feel shorter. Even King's notoriously digressive passages take on an absorbing quality in Weber's rendition. Everything about this performance--the vivid delineation of each and every character, the near-improvisational approach to the text, and above all, the drive and consistency he brings to this most unwieldy of King's novels--makes this a recording that every narrator could learn from. I know I have.