Heard any good epics lately?
THE RAINMAKER (4 cassettes, 6 hours) Pounds 12.99; Fatherland (2 cassettes, 3 hours) Pounds 4.99 Random House.
GULLIVER'S TRAVELS (2 cassettes, 3 hours. Only available from WHSmith) Pounds 5.99 Hodder.
A FEW WELL-CHOSEN WORDS Pounds 6.95 Gramophone
As publishers continue to expand their audio-book repertoire, Betty Tadman picks out her favourites from a summer selection
This summer's crop of audio-books is outstanding. I have chosen nine of the best, mostly abridged. While a full-length version may run to 26 cassettes, an intelligent abridgement may take only four and, if it's well done, can be almost as effective (and cost is not a factor to be ignored).
Like his modern reincarnation John Grisham, Wilkie Collins studied law before abandoning it for novel-writing. The Moonstone is the world's first detective novel, and its ingeniously-contrived plot demands alert attention. The stone in question is a huge diamond stolen from an Indian shrine and given to the young heroine. Collins's own experiences with opium, which he took to relieve the agonies of gout, play a crucial part in the hero's attempt to reveal the truth by reconstructing the exact details of the crime. In Naxos's adaptation, five gifted actors relate interlocking versions of events which gradually build up a jigsaw in the listener's mind. Mendelssohn quartets and sitar music enrich the tale's effect.
Collins's most successful novel, however, remains The Woman in White, which was inspired by his encounter on a moonlit road with Caroline Graves, who begged him to help her escape from an unknown tyrant. She became Collins's mistress, and stayed with him most of his life. The chilling words with which the fictional ogre introduced himself "She has escaped from my asylum" were, however, the novelist's invention. The multiple-narrator form is splendidly realised, thanks to Penguin's astute casting of Nigel Anthony and Susan Jameson. Menace and fear are brilliantly captured, with the smooth, villainous charm of Count Fosco growing increasingly alarming as the mystery unfolds.
In The Rainmaker, John Grisham's latest legal thriller, the hero is not the usual super-bright young lawyer but one of a multitude of graduates whose first small-time job disappears when his firm is merged with a more prestigious outfit. One of his clients, whom he met on a training exercise, is involved in a "bad faith" case in which the insurance company has repeatedly refused payment for a bone-marrow transplant for the client's young son. He is dying, and it is already too late to save him; revenge on the insurers becomes the thrust of the story.
In The Chamber Grisham flew in the face of American prejudice and exposed the torture of Death Row; here he indicts his countrymen's resistance to free medical provision. For this courtroom story, with its cynical view of the American legal system, Michael Beck reads in a variety of southern voices, managing men and women with equal conviction. Even in audio form, this is popular fiction at its unputdownable best.
For the same publisher Random House Werner Klemperer reads Robert Harris's Fatherland, in which, if the Allies had lost the war, 1964 would have seen the celebration in Berlin of Hitler's 75th birthday. Klemperer reads this convincingly-detailed flight of fantasy with sinister flair, evoking all the characters in this tale of genocide, love, torture and a complex murder puzzle.
After his success in reading Kidnapped, Robbie Coltrane now delivers Rob Roy for Penguin with comparable verve. Outlaw Rob becomes the Robin Hood of Scotland, dispensing justice by the sword, avenging murders, rescuing captives, slaughtering villains, and protecting the life of Francis Osbaldistone, whose story of love and family intrigue forms the bulk of the novel. Coltrane impersonates arrogant lairds, humble peasants and clan members, in a variety of Scottish voices, to thrilling effect.
For Hodder, Robert Hardy reads Gulliver's Travels with authority and conviction. Astonishments relating to the reversal of size have an enduring appeal for young and old. The five-inch Lilliputians, giganitic Brobdingnagians, the moonstruck philosophers, the noble horses (Houyhnhnms) and their sub-human serfs (Yahoos), all attest Swift's distaste for mankind, and all are skilfully differentiated.
Overshadowed by her sisters, Anne Bront wrote two novels. Penguin presents The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, excellently read by Juliet Stevenson. Much of this mysterious book is related in diary form, and reveals Anne as a natural storyteller. Perhaps Penguin will now publish Agnes Gray, the absorbing story she wrote in the same year, before her death aged 30.
Naxos's abridgement of War and Peace has been executed with scrupulous care. A list of the main characters is given, clearing any confusion in the vast panorama of events. Neville Jason acts the different voices with skill, narrating in measured tones while ceremonial music underscores the agonies inflicted on the Russian people during the Napoleonic Wars.
This same publisher offers a stylish and compelling version of Dangerous Liaisons, written in epistolary form, and read by seven actors. The music of Mozart and Haydn perfectly creates the atmosphere of powerful scheming as the Marquise and Valmont embark on their career of corruption and seduction.
Meanwhile, the Gramophone magazine has published a useful handbook for spoken- word addicts: Mary Postgate's A Few Well-Chosen Words. Its recommendations are illuminating, and its plan intelligent. But with an industry expanding as fast as this one is, frequent updates will be needed: to be comprehensive, it would need to be twice the size, and probably twice the price.