Ralph Cosham, who spent decades performing on local stages, including 11 seasons with Arena Stage and seven with the Shakespeare Theatre, now has an audience of one — his chihuahua-corgi rescue dog, Charlie. That suits Cosham just fine.
Cosham records books in his home sound studio in Reston, and on Aug. 26 his latest recording will be released, along with the book. “The Long Way Home” is the 10th in Canadian author Louise Penny’s popular, award-winning detective series, featuring Quebec’s chief inspector of homicide, Armand Gamache. Cosham has recorded all of the books, and has won awards for them, including an Audie Award for best mystery and AudioFile Earphones and Library Journal awards for best audiobook.
The relationship between Penny and Cosham seems to be a meeting of the minds, as Cosham described it over an appropriately French lunch of croque-monsieurs in Old Town Alexandria. A native of England, he is a soft-spoken man, dapper in a blue jacket with a neatly trimmed beard, and courtly in demeanor.
“Louise Penny makes you want to go on reading; it makes my job so much easier. The rhythm, the melody, it’s all there, and her characters are vivid and real. I see the places as I read, creating a movie in my mind, which I hope to transmit vocally,” he said.
Cosham, whose voice has been called “hypnotic” and “magnificent” by reviewers, has been recording books since 1992, with more than 100 recordings to his credit (some under the pseudonym Geoffrey Howard). He believes that Penny’s books are ones he was born to do.
Not that the author has heard the narration; she admits during a phone conversation from her home in Quebec that she has listened only to the first sentence of the first book. “There’s an element of magic to the writing process, and I’m wary of playing with that. All of the voices in my head would disappear,” she said. “It’s sad that I can’t listen to it, I would find it so moving.”
Cosham suspected as much. “She doesn’t tell me how to record, and I don’t tell her how to write. We trust each other, and it’s one of the reasons we have been so successful,” he said. Cosham sends Penny an occasional e-mail if he needs clarification. Their first exchange, a query about a quaking duck named Rosa, ended up being a typographical error rather than a nervous animal.
It takes Cosham about three weeks to record a Penny mystery, generally recording for four hours with a break in between. He does not read the book in advance and edits as he reads, going over a passage several times if it doesn’t sound right to him.
“I don’t want to know whodunit; I want the reader and me to discover it at the same time,” he explained. “With the Penny books I take my time because I need to sustain the characters the audience has met along the way. [My approach is] I’m telling you this, I’m not reading to you.”
Cosham credits the success of his narration in part to the skills he learned during his 35 years as an actor, such as being true to the characters and allowing the story to dictate the pace. His goal in performance was to serve the play with the audience participating in the experience, so he said the absence of an audience when he records is not a problem for him. Other aspects of the actor’s world, such as eight performances weekly and late hours, he has been happy to leave behind.
Although Penny does not listen to Cosham’s recordings, she gets plenty of feedback from fans, especially about his portrayal of the main character, Armand Gamache. “Gamache is an adult, not a man-child with a gun. For me, if you don’t get Gamache, the series is lost to you. Ralph brings him alive, I think, because he understands Gamache,” she said.
For Cosham, the fact that the French Canadian detective studied at Oxford is significant to his accent. “A rumbling, growly sound also seemed to help me create the character,” he said. “He has a sympathetic, avuncular kind of attitude; he can see good in bad people.”
Despite his clear enjoyment in recording books, will Cosham, who is 78, ever emerge from his recording studio to appear again on D.C. stages? It’s possible: he proudly wears an Actors’ Equity lapel pin, and during a chance meeting with a former theater colleague after lunch, Cosham volunteered that he might well come out of retirement for the right role.
Greer is a freelance writer.