Five to Try: Mysteries on Audio

I love listening to audiobooks. While most of what I read and review here are print copies, I love to listen to audiobooks while I am out and about – particularly when taking a walk or on a lengthy drive.

Of course, not every book that ends up on audio however is suited to the format. In some cases that’s because a particular clue requires you to see a clue written down to understand it properly. One example of this would be in Agatha Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles where there is a reproduction of a physical clue that you don’t experience if you are listening. That’s not to forget that sometimes there are maps and floor plans that you may miss out on. In other cases a good story can be spoiled by a flat or unsympathetic reading where the narrator and the source material just don’t work well together.

When done right however an audiobook presentation can be a powerful experience. There have been some books I have struggled with in print but which I suddenly found myself connecting to when read by the right sort of narrator. Christian Rodska’s reading of Lindsey Davis’ The Silver Pigs is a great case in point – I had tried repeatedly over the years to start that book in print only to breeze through it when heard with his performance really bringing out the humor in the material wonderfully (sadly I quickly realized that he only narrates a handful of the subsequent titles).

Perhaps the most striking mystery audiobook I have listened to was the reading of Kanae Minato’s Confessions. The book, which is composed of a number of different characters’ accounts of the circumstances concerning the horrific murder of a toddler, works so well on audio because of the choice to have different actors read the chapters and because of the unusual second-person narration style. It’s a very dark but highly engaging listening experience.

I would also champion the Stephen Fry recordings of the complete Sherlock Holmes canon for Audible. There are many recordings of these stories but what sets these apart for me are the thoughtful introductions to each book from Fry in which he reflects on his own experiences. His enthusiasm as a lifelong Sherlockian really comes through in these and his voice is a wonderful match for the source material.

For today’s post though I have decided to focus on audiobook adaptations of vintage stories of mystery and suspense from around the time of the golden age of detection. In each case I think not only is it a good audiobook production but that the material being adapted is worth your time as well.

As always, I invite you to share your thoughts in the comments below if there are any titles or narrators you particularly enjoy…

Mystery at Olympia cover

Mystery at Olympia by John Rhode

Narrated by Gordon Griffin

Griffin is a superb audiobook narrator who you will often hear on recordings of British Library Crime Classics but I rate his four Dr. Priestley novels as his most essential work. The reason is that his precise delivery not only suits the style and tone of Rhode’s writing but it works brilliantly for the armchair detective.

All four of the Rhode audiobooks are done well but Mystery at Olympia is my favorite of these novels. It concerns the murder of a man at a booth where the Comet Motor Company are demonstrating their ‘exciting’ new transmission system (the excitement, I am sorry to say, is purely Rhode’s but Griffin delivers those passages with enough gusto to help them pass quickly).

The death appears natural but when the man’s housekeeper is poisoned and a further attempt on his life is identified, Inspector Hanslet becomes convinced that there has been foul play.

Griffin reads it wonderfully, not only doing a fine job with Priestley but also with Inspector Hanslet who is a very different sort of detective. It’s a great introduction to Priestley for those encountering him for the first time and I can only hope that if the new reprints are ever turned into audiobooks that whoever does so engages Griffin to do those too.

Read my review of the book here

Enter a Murderer cover

Enter a Murderer by Ngaio Marsh

Read by James Saxon

I was not a fan of the first Inspector Alleyn mystery, A Man Lay Dead, finding it a tough read to like. One of the reasons for that was I struggled to get much of a sense of her detective. That changed when I made the choice to switch to the audiobook recording for this second novel.

The story itself, which takes place in a theatrical setting, is particularly suited to audio because so many of its characters have larger than life personalities. From the booming voice of theatrical impresario Jacob Saint to the breathy, confident Stephanie Vaughan, the narrator James Saxon has a lot to work with and he makes the most of the rather stylized dialogue.

His best work though is with Alleyn himself who he voices in a somewhat sarcastic tone. Suddenly I found myself connecting with the character and noticing that much of his sarcasm is directed at himself. It’s a highly entertaining listen that I think brings the work to life wonderfully. My only regret is that he is not used for all of the series, though he does narrate a substantial portion of them.

Read my review of the book here

The Case of the Curious Bride cover

The Case of the Curious Bride by Erle Stanley Gardner

Read by Alexander Cendese

As much as I enjoy reading Perry Mason on the page, I absolutely love listening to Alexander Cendese performing these stories. His Perry is powerful and commanding and he absolutely brings that character to life as a sort of legal brawler, perfectly matching the tone of the earliest Perry Mason stories.

It is hard to pick a favorite from these stories given that most offer some points of interest (the weakest of the stories I have read so far is The Case of the Lucky Legs). In the end I opted for this one because it has been a while since I reviewed it and it is more of a detective story than the others.

The story involves Perry being hired by a woman who is seeking legal advice on behalf of a friend. She asks about the time needed for a person to be considered dead, the laws on bigamy and whether a body would need to be found. She soon flees his office under questioning but before long Perry finds himself involved in a murder case.

While it gets off to a bit of a slow start, this book soon begins to take some unpredictable twists and turns. The whodunnit aspect is not too difficult to resolve – the bigger challenge will be working out just how Perry will get his client out of jeopardy. If you’re looking for a Mason story to start with, this is a pretty good one to try.

Read my review of the book here

Henrietta Who? cover

Henrietta Who? by Catherine Aird

Narrated by Robin Bailey

So I stated above that the works I would select would be from the Golden Age of Detection. Well, obviously I lied though I think that spiritually this novel feels like it belongs to that period of detective fiction.

The novel begins with a postman discovering the body of Mrs. Jenkins in the road in the early hours of the morning. It appears to have been a tragic hit and run but the post-mortem reveals two strange details that raise further questions. The first is why she was hit by cars traveling in two different directions. The other is that the woman has never given birth, a matter that proves deeply confusing to her adult daughter Henrietta who has come to identify the body.

The puzzle element of this novel is fascinating but what makes it truly compelling is the emotional component as Inspector Sloan tries to find the truth of Henrietta’s identity. Robin Bailey navigates all this well, giving those moments an appropriate emotional tone and emphasizing the detective’s sense of humanity making this a compelling listen.

Read my review of the book here

Death of Anton by Alan Melville

Narrated by David Thorpe

One of the peculiarities of the British Library Crime Classic range is that because the books have a separate US publisher there will often be a bit of a delay between the UK and US releases. This was not an inconsiderable period in the case of Death of Anton which was all the more frustrating because all the bloggers in the UK were raving about how much fun it was. When I realized that the Soundings Audio release was available months before the paperback I quickly resolved to pick that up instead. Happily it is a release that works really well in that format.

The story, which is as much a work of comedy as it is detection, concerns the death of a tiger tamer at the circus. Inspector Minto who happens to be enjoying the circus as a guest soon becomes convinced that this is not the innocent accident it appears but something more sinister and begins an investigation. Adding to the fun is the fact that his brother, a priest, has learned the identity of the killer in confession but cannot reveal that information to him, much to Minto’s frustration.

The story is colorful and amusing throughout. While some comedic mysteries can struggle to sustain the sense of fun (I think, for instance, of the same author’s Quick Curtain), this continues to blend the comedy and detection right up to the conclusion. Neither the solution to the mystery nor Minto’s detection skills are likely to wow readers but it does make for a charming and consistently amusing read with Thorpe handling those comedic elements and the sometimes larger-than-life characters and situations quite wonderfully.

Read my review of the book here

So, there are my five picks for interesting GAD (and GAD-like) books you could try on audio. What are some of your favorite audiobook readings of mystery novels?

Penance by Kanae Minato, translated by Philip Gabriel

Originally published in 2009 as 贖罪 (Shokuzai).
English translation first published in 2017.

A chilling Japanese psychological thriller and Edgar Award finalist about four women, forever connected by one horrible day in their childhood — fifteen years later, someone wants to make sure they never forget.

When they were girls, Sae, Maki, Akiko and Yuko were tricked into leaving their friend Emily with a mysterious stranger. Then the unthinkable occurred: Emily was found murdered hours later. 

The four friends were never able to describe the stranger to the police; the killer’s trail went cold. Asako, the bereaved mother, curses the surviving girls, vowing that they will be the ones to pay for her daughter’s murder…

When I read Confessions a little over four months ago I didn’t expect it to stay with me the way it has. That story grabbed me with its second person storytelling approach and its complex exploration of a horrible crime. I didn’t find it a particularly pleasant reading experience – not only because it offers no strand of positivity to cling onto but because the nature of crime crime, the murder of a young child, is always going to be affecting for any parent.

So, why am I putting myself through this again? The answer is because it is rare to find a book that continues to occupy your thoughts for such a long time and I was curious to see if her other translated work could do the same.

At this point a brief warning – I cannot really discuss this book without mentioning the crimes themselves. I will try and avoid being too detailed but there are plenty of triggers here so if in doubt I’d suggest passing over this post.

Penance shares much in common with Confessions. Each chapter is narrated by a different character offering their own perspectives on the same incident and exploring how it fits into the broader story of their lives which diverged afterwards. That incident is shocking and deeply upsetting and while we do get an answer as to who did the crime by the end of the book, the novel is more about how we respond to that sort of an event and how it changes people than it is about working out whodunit. It explores the links between events, some of them incredibly small, and how they can produce devastating, unforseen results. It also looks at how people may seek to deal with their pain and the inadvertant consequences of their choices. Finally, it is about how society as a whole responds to that crime and it, like Confessions, seems to question the nature of a law.

The novel concerns an event that happened when the book’s first four narrators were elementary-aged children, living in a rural town. The group were playing on school grounds during a public holiday when they are approached by a stranger who asks for their help to fix a problem in one of the school buildings. The fifth member of the group, Emily – a recent arrival from Tokyo, is chosen and when she does not return the group eventually investigate to find her dead.

The police question the four girls but they claim that they cannot remember what the stranger looked like causing the case to hit a dead end. Over the years that follow Emily’s mother makes several attempts to question them, hoping that something will jog their memories. Frustrated and forced to return to Tokyo, she tells the group that they must either find Emily’s murderer or do penance for the rest of their lives – a statement that each of them takes to heart and affects them in different but very powerful ways.

Each chapter of the first four chapters of the book explore what became of those girls and how they took those words to heart. All of them are deeply impacted by them and, unable to solve the case, seem to pay a sort of penance in their lives whether they are conscious of it or not.

This sort of an approach could easily feel repetitive but I felt that the author did a good job of repeating information when necessary to a character’s story but finding ways to address those common events more quickly when appropriate. For example the third chapter skips over the event itself entirely, reflecting that the character in question was less affected by the incident itself than the events that surrounded it.

I appreciated that while there are a lot of common characteristics between these four narrators, each has a very distinct voice and personality. While each of their penances are dark and painful, they are quite different and each feels tailored to their role within the group and the experiences they had. It would be fair to say that some of the experiences are unlikely but for Minato tragedy seems to beget more tragedy and so I could easily accept that as part of the view espoused by the author. Indeed I think it is rather the point of the novel that we are changed by our experiences and react to new ones through the prism of our previous ones.

The one story that I think feels a little out of place is the third one which is the chapter titled ‘The Bear Siblings‘. The penance in that chapter certainly is related to the main crime and yet I think you could argue that the other children’s experiences wouldn’t have happened were it not for Emily’s murder. I am not so sure that can be said of what she goes through and I am not sure I agree with Emily mother’s thoughts on those events when they are shared towards the end of the novel.

One of the criticisms I have seen in reviews of this book suggests that the events in the book are unrealistic or rely on coincidence. I have hinted above that I do not think that is true of the four individual narratives but I do think there is an element of coincidence involved in the explanation of what happened to Emily. To me that did not weaken the story however but fit with its theme that each action can have unintended effects – the idea that little ripples can eventually form a wave. I would add that while the things that happened to characters were sometimes fantastic, the characters’ responses to them always felt credible to me.

If I had a problem with these four accounts it was that I occasionally found that the economical prose made some parts of the stories a little challenging to follow, particularly in the chapters titled ‘An Unscheduled PTA Meeting’ and ‘The Bear Siblings’. At points I had to reread passages for clarity to be sure I knew which character was being discussed. In each instance it was clear when looking at sections carefully and I think it does reflect an idea that the book uses in several places that those characters are drawing parallels with their other experiences.

The explanation for the original crime struck me as powerful and, as with Confessions, I appreciated the thoughtful exploration of that idea of how choices have consequences. That being said, I can only reiterate that this is a deeply upsetting book. I think it needs to be in order to prompt the necessary response from the reader and from the characters but that does not make it comfortable to experience. In particular, be warned that in addition to being murdered, the child was also raped by her attacker and that while we do not experience that moment from her perspective, the state of her body afterwards is described.

While there is a question of who murdered Emily and why, I should stress that this isn’t a puzzle that the reader can really solve. They will not have enough information until right before the end to truly understand the crime, though they may be able to infer some clues that will be used to identify them at the end. I certainly wouldn’t suggest reading it for that purpose in any case.

Really this book, like Confessions, is about the themes and issues it chooses to address. It not only tells a compelling story of a truly horrific crime, it also offers some interesting reflections on life in the Japanese countryside as opposed to the cities and on the nature of guilt and how we respond to it, all told in a mix of second person voices which pull the reader closer into the tale.

It is not, I think, quite so punchy as Confessions. That novel tied its characters together even more closely, creating a stronger sense of cause and effect in their actions, and the epistolary format here is not quite as arresting as the lecture given at the start of that other novel. Still, I found it a dark and compelling book that will no doubt stay with me for some time, just as the other did.

The Verdict: A really dark and powerful read that is just as devastating as the author’s debut work, Confessions.

I read and wrote about this book in response to the 14th Japanese Literature Challenge which I am participating in this year.

Confessions by Kanae Minato, translated by Stephen Snyder

Originally published as 告白 in 2008
English language translation published in 2014

HER PUPILS KILLED HER DAUGHTER.
NOW, SHE WILL HAVE HER REVENGE.

After calling off her engagement in wake of a tragic revelation, Yuko Moriguchi had nothing to live for except her only child, four-year-old Manami. Now, following an accident on the grounds of the middle school where she teaches, Yuko has given up and tendered her resignation.

But first she has one last lecture to deliver. She tells a story that upends everything her students ever thought they knew about two of their peers, and sets in motion a maniacal plot for revenge.

Kanae Minato’s Confessions begins with Yuko Moriguchi, a middle school homeroom teacher, addressing her class. She informs them that she will be retiring from the profession and describes how and why she has come to that decision. The students are already aware that her four year-old daughter Manami had been found drowned several weeks earlier in the school’s swimming pool. What really shocks them is when she tells them that two of their number were responsible for the death. As she puts it, two of them murdered her daughter.

This chapter, delivered in the second person as though speaking to the whole class, outlines what Yuko has discovered in her investigation. She doesn’t directly name names, though the identities of students A and B are easily inferred and confirmed in the following chapter, but she takes us through the core events that led to these two teenagers killing her daughter. Her account is extremely thorough though the one thing it misses is an understanding of why the murder happened.

The subsequent chapters are each told from the perspectives of other characters including, eventually, the two boys in question. An effect of telling the story from these multiple perspectives is that it feels like we are circling ever more tightly around the explanation, getting closer to an understanding with each fresh perspective until we finally hear from the chief instigator himself and see exactly why he wanted to commit such an appalling crime.

The book’s title, Confessions, is extremely apt. Each of the chapters is told in a slightly different style though in the second person. The intended audience is different each time – one account is written as a letter, another a diary, another a spoken confessional with the last being a blog entry. This gives the text a really direct feeling, involving the reader in the events and making them feel that the two guilty boys might be someone we know or that we might be complicit in some of what happened.

This second person approach is unusual in books for a reason. It is extremely difficult to do well and sustain but the creation of these multiple viewpoints makes it work. It is particularly effective when read aloud so I can certainly recommend the audiobook version of this book which is read by Elaina Erika Davis and Noah Galvin. That first chapter in particular feels quite arresting and while I wish a different narrator had been used for each chapter to really drive home the effect, I think simply having a male and female reader works well enough and both performers read skillfully.

While there is a certain amount of revisiting of the same events, these multiple perspectives are skillfully crafted to avoid repeating points too frequently. Events are often discussed tangentially or reframed as parts of different discussions based on what is most important to that character. To give an example, four of the accounts mention an incident in which Yuko had refused to buy an item for her daughter and yet only her own account describes that exchange. The others pass judgment or see an opportunity in that moment but without recapping most of what actually happened.

These chapters flesh out motivations and our understanding of each of the characters. In some cases we can see how and why one character comes to believe or interpret an event in a particular way, even though we possess information that would suggest something different. The strongest examples of this come in a chapter narrated by the mother of one of the boys which is full of statements that fundamentally misinterpret what she is witnessing. The reader has information that she does not which allows us to see the flaw in her thinking, but those flawed assumptions are just as important to our understanding of what happened as the truth.

Confessions does not encourage us to have any sympathy at all for these two boys. What they do is awful and terribly upsetting. I have mentioned before that I find stories featuring violence towards children difficult to read and this was no exception, probably explaining why it has sat for quite some time on my TBR pile. I expected to find this a difficult read and it was. There are no happy endings here which is appropriate – if there were it would feel horribly contrived or misjudging of the mood – and I think the reader may well reach the end and question whether every action taken was appropriate. Whether there was any justice, if not, and whether there could have been any justice.

These two boys are clearly to blame for what happened and yet what this book does encourage us to do is see the forces that made them who they are. After learning the facts of the case we see how easily this scenario could have turned out very differently. Their guilt does not preclude the possibility that others may be guilty too.

Nor are there any heroes. I can think of just two characters depicted in a positive or noble light. One is the murdered daughter Manami who is a very typical four year old – occasionally petulant or naughty but also sweet and loving. The other is a man who remains in the background throughout the story, frequently referred to but never really active in what goes on. Everyone else we encounter is rendered in shades of grey and be prepared – Minato presses down pretty hard with her pencil at times to give us some pretty dark renderings.

In addition to exploring the characters she creates, Minato also explores a variety of themes relating to justice, punishment, parenthood, collective responsibility and the glorification of criminals. While the details of these issues are often specific to Japan, the broader discussions are universal and I think most readers will be able to draw easy parallels to similar issues or cases in their own cultural experience.

The one theme that may be less accessible to western readers is its discussion of hikikomori, adolescent and adult shut-ins and, in particular, the way society perceives that group. I think Minato describes the anxiety and social judgment around this topic well enough that readers who are unfamiliar with the idea will get the jist of what is being discussed but some may find it helpful though to have an understanding of the term to better understand that anxiety and characters’ responses to it given how important it is to the second and third chapters of the book. This 15 minute English-language report from France24 offers a basic overview, as does this much shorter overview from Crunchyroll aimed at anime viewers.

This richness of theme coupled with interesting and complicated characters makes for a really potent read that left me rather shaken. Indeed I can’t help but note that it has taken me longer to write my thoughts about the book than it took me to read it – a mark of when a book has really made an impression on me. It is in my opinion a rather fine example of the whydunnit type of inverted mystery story, exploring how multiple influences can come together to create a truly devastating situation.

Confessions will not be for everyone. It is a really dark book that offers no hope or positivity for the reader to really grasp onto. At its end I was left feeling uncomfortable and terribly sad about what I had just read. Still, in spite of that darkness and that sadness, I think the book was fundamentally about something big and important: our notion of justice, punishment and how we choose to assign blame for crime. This book does not offer answers but it does pose some difficult questions that will linger with me for some time to come.

The Verdict: A powerful, fascinating and utterly devastating read. The subject matter is much darker than I typically like but it is handled very well.