By Don Winslow
Summer’s best audio books
Unabridged, Blackstone (www.BlackstoneAudio.com), 7 ½ hours, 6CDs, $38; 1 MP3 disk, $29.95; 6 tapes, $27.48; audible.com download, $17.47
Published in 1998 and only now appearing in an audio version, this is the fourth in Don Winslow’s series of five blood-splattered romps starring private investigator and student of 18th-century literature Neal Carey. The books can be listened to in any order — but perhaps only in private by those who don’t wish to be seen barking with laughter. Everyone — including media hounds, a bibulous gumshoe, a patrician lawyer and a passel of mobsters — is after Polly Paget, the bimbo-ish former girlfriend of Jackson Landis, a married family-values TV show host. Neal’s job is to hide Polly and teach her elocution, repairing her gum-snapping diction before she appears in court to testify to having been raped by Landis. (Happily, there is none of the torture and sadism that deform Winslow’s later work.) Joe Barrett’s narration is excellently hard-boiled and his characters aptly voiced: Neal is superbly exasperated; Polly, steel-cored ditzy; the wise guys, an amalgam of dopiness and menace; the boozy detective is flummoxed; and the upper-crust lawyer is fatuousness itself.
By Daisy Goodwin
Unabridged, MacMillan Audio, 13 hours, 11 CDs, $39.99
Here is a novel that is just too silly for words: an ideal summer folly. The aptly named Cora Cash is 19, American, and longing to be free of her domineering mother. Suffice it to say that she ends up marrying into the English aristocracy, to a snooty but impoverished duke. Cora gives him an heir, and her money restores his ancient demesne and crumbling pile. But lavish interiors, breath-taking landscapes and elaborate feasts in the company of bluebloods do not compensate the young woman for her husband’s chilliness. Who does he think he is, an unredeemed Mr. Darcy? An old suitor appears on the scene. What will happen? We don’t really care, but we are definitely amused. Katherine Kellgren, a truly accomplished voice actress, affects a la-di-da intercontinental accent for the narration of this puree of Edith Wharton, “Downton Abbey” and pulp romance. In merely uttering the expression “the mansions of Newport,” she conveys all the ravenous snobbery and envious fantasy to which the novel caters in its irresistibly shameless way.
By Charles Cumming
Unabridged, Macmillan Audio, 11 ½ hours, 9 CDs, $39.99; audible.com download, $27.99
Sam Gaddis, a present-day lecturer in Russian history at the University of London, obtains evidence that the “Cambridge Five,” a notorious circle of spies recruited by the Soviets in the 1930s, included a sixth member. Hoping to get a best-selling book out of this, he meets with a slippery nonagenarian informer, an event that leads him into a world of treachery, double agents and assassination. John Lee brings his characteristic dash, snap and slight Celtic burr to the reading of this terrifically suspenseful tale. The plot is labyrinthine, but not confusing. Bodies pile up, and Gaddis becomes increasingly paranoid — or realistic; he doesn’t know which. Something big is being covered up, that’s for sure, and it appears to involve the Putin-like Russian president. The frantic academic soon finds that he is an object of MI6’s not entirely reassuring interest and, worse, the quarry of Russian operatives. Their accents, it should be said, are pretty much Lee’s own creation, but they are still as sinister and deadly as the novel demands.
A Romance of the French Revolution
By Rafael Sabatini
Unabridged, 12 hours, Tantor (www.tantor.com), 10 CDs, $35.99; audible.com download, $25.19
This year marks the 90thanniversary of the publication of this swashbuckling adventure. Simon Vance narrates it, surpassing the performance he gave in 1998 under his nom de voix, Robert Whitfield. Set at the beginning of the French Revolution, the story follows Andre-Louis Moreau as he progresses from lawyer to actor to fencing master to deputy in the National Assembly. He is intent on avenging the death of his bosom friend Philippe de Vilmorin at the hands of the evil Marquis de la Tour d’Azyr. Vance deftly distinguishes among the characters, not only as individuals, but in their moral proclivities: Cynicism, vanity, pusillanimity, cruelty, righteousness and remorse are all met in their voices. Beyond that, the elegant tread of Vance’s overall delivery exactly accords with the air of portentousness announced by the novel’s famous first line: “He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad.”
Katherine A. Powers regularly reviews audio books for The Washington Post.