Listen Up! 3 Terrific Thrillers in Audio

earphones

photo: John O’Nolan, creative commons license

Catching up on highly regarded crime thrillers of the last year, I’ve turned to audio for these:

*****Prussian Blue
By the late Philip Kerr, narrated by John Lee. This was Kerr’s next-to-last historical crime novel featuring Berlin detective Bernie Gunther, and takes place in 1939 and 1956. Lee’s reading imbues Gunther with every sly hint and ironic twist in his attitude toward the Nazis. Some of his colleagues at the time were aware: “I don’t know how you’ve survived this long, Gunther, feeling as you do.” But survive he has, and 17 years later, he’s working in France when a former colleague—now head of the East German secret police, the Stasi—demands he murder a certain woman. Rather than comply, Gunther goes on the run. Scenes of his flight across France are interspersed with recollections of a 1939 murder case at Hitler’s famous mountaintop retreat in Obersalzberg, which he was brought in to solve and which put him right in the middle of a power struggle between two of Hitler’s top men. It would be a hard job to choose which tale is more nerve-wracking. Lee’s Gunther is just right, his Nazis odious, and his Stasi enemies no better. Nominated for a 2018 Edgar Award and five stars from CrimeFictionLover.com.

****Bluebird, Bluebird
By Attica Locke, narrated by J.D. Jackson. In northeast Texas, a black man’s body is found floating in the bayou behind the only black-owned business in the tiny fictional town of Lark. Texas Ranger Darren Matthews is on suspension, but decides to poke around. One of the few black Rangers, he’s worked before on race-connected deaths and believes this is one. When he arrives in the town, the sheriff’s men are fishing another body out of the water—this one a white woman. Surely the deaths are linked, but how? And can he prove it? As he tries, Jackson’s narration expertly conveys not just Matthews’s determination, but the sheriff’s weakness, the malevolence of local Aryan Brotherhood of Texas members, the shifting moods of the dead man’s elegant wife from Chicago, who is the sort of Bluebird (messenger) of the title, and, finally, the townspeople black and white who are protecting a decades-old wall of secrets, all of whom are intriguing if just a bit predictable. Winner of the 2018 Edgar Award for Best Novel. TV series in the works.

*****The Marsh King’s Daughter
By Karen Dionne, narrated by Emily Rankin. Helena Pelletier is the protagonist in this thriller, set in the Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. She’s trying to live a normal life with her husband and two daughters, while keeping her bizarre past a secret. Rankin’s reading makes it clear this isn’t easy, and it becomes impossible when her Native American father kills two guards and escapes from prison, “armed and dangerous.” Years before, he kidnapped a fourteen-year-old girl and took her into the remote marshlands as his wife. There they lived off the land and had a daughter—Helena. Rankin conveys how much the young Helena adored her father and what he taught her about hunting, fishing, and survival. Eventually, the girl and her mother were found, and her father ended up in prison, an outcome that has left Helena deeply conflicted. Now that he’s on the run, she’s has to see whether she can live up to his nickname for her, Bangii-Agawaateyaa, “Little Shadow,” and find him before he finds her and her daughters. An international bestseller, it was frequently named one of the best books of 2017. Movie in the works.

A Trio of Notable Crime Novels

photo: Stew Dean, creative commons license

Exciting plots, award-winning authors, worthy protagonists. Three crime thrillers for spring!

****Slow Horses

By Mick Herron – In Britain’s MI5, the slow horses are the agents whose incompetence, outrageous errors, or general unlikeability cause them to slip off the fast track. They’re stabled at the aptly-named Slough House, far from Regent’s Park, the energized center of important decisions and brisk walking. With luck, sheer boredom will move them to seek some different pasture.

The slow horses work under the benign supervision of Jackson Lamb, who may be more wolf than lamb, and you’d be forgiven for anticipating that the luckless occupants of Slough House are not without tradecraft tools and the wit to use them.

When a young man is abducted by people threatening to behead him live on the Internet, the political complexities of the situation quickly escalate. Slough House has reason to be involved, but HQ won’t hear of it. Worse, a violent attack on one of them suggests any means possible will be used to prevent their sticking their noses in. Slow horses or no, the race is on. Against the kidnappers and against their own superiors.

Herron has written a page-turner of a novel, with many laugh-out-loud moments. This first in an award-winning series was thoroughly enjoyable.

***Night Life

By David C. Taylor, narrated by Keith Szarabajka – In 1954 New York City, police detective Michael Cassidy—who could have inspired Sinatra’s “My Way”—becomes embroiled in a mystery that will require all his detecting skills and a great deal of political savvy to unravel. A young gay man is found tortured to death. The killer was apparently looking for something. Cassidy must look for it too.

He’s not sure what he’ll find when he starts turning over rocks in these early Cold War days, with paranoia about Communism and Communists on the rise, with the hearings of Senator Joe McCarthy’s witch hunt in the news, with the CIA and the FBI competing for scraps of information. Cassidy is a straight-up cop, but he’s unaware of his own vulnerabilities. He’s about to discover them, and they will put the people he cares about most at risk.

Screenwriter Taylor creates a powerful noir atmosphere that evokes not only the streets of New York some sixty years ago but also the psychic atmosphere, with its fear-mongering about the Red Menace and its rampant homophobia. In this novel, both of these caused people to kill and be killed. Nice narration from Keith Szarabajka.

This book won the 2016 Nero Wolfe Award for Best American Mystery, and was a Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award nominee.

***Shutter Man

By Richard Montanari, narrated by Scott Brick – Another good cop story, this one intergenerational. It’s set in Philadelphia, and the early scenes take place in 1976 in an Irish neighborhood called Devil’s Pocket. Back then, a group of teenage friends from the Pocket were involved somehow in the death of a mentally disabled young man who was a member of the powerful Irish crime family, the Farrens.

Today, one of those young men is police detective Kevin Byrne, another is DA candidate Jimmy Doyle, and the Farrens are still operating outside the law. Byrne and his friend, Assistant DA Jessica Balzano (teamed up in several of Montanari’s books) are working on a set of bizarre killings that seem to be linked, but how? And do they reach all the way back to those Devil’s Pocket days?

Montanari’s characters are interesting and well-rounded and he creates considerable narrative tension. While Scott Brick provided a fine narration, the multitude of characters and the switching between time periods make this a better candidate for enjoying in print.

One of The New York Times‘s 10 Best Crime Novels of 2016.

30-Second Book Reviews – Part 2

Reading

photo: Carlos Martinez, creative commons license

Recently Published

All the Wicked Girls by Chris Whitaker – An thriller in which real and symbolic dark clouds hover menacingly over a tiny Alabama community. Young girls—young religious girls—are being murdered. When another goes missing, the town’s turned into a tinderbox, and the sheriff is hard put to control the situation. The sheriff, the girl’s twin sister, and a couple of outsider friends are captivating characters. Written from multiple points of view, this is a complex, compelling story.

A Cold Death by Marilyn Meredith – Another in the popular Deputy Tempe Crabtree series. A group of sniping acquaintances is snowbound at a mountain cabin and none too happy about it. Loyalties shift; suspicions rise; accusations cascade. Crabtree also must deal with the ghost of a former resident, and the light touch of paranormal is handled well.

Classics Revisited

Theft: A Love Story by Man Booker prize-winner Peter Carey – In this 2006 novel, a flamboyant Australian artist struggles with a career past its peak, while dealing with his developmentally disabled (but entertainingly astute) younger brother, a conniving girlfriend who is always one step ahead of him, and an unforgiving ex-wife. “Witty, urbane, funny, and profound.”

Our Game by John le Carré – When one of the oldest friends of retired MI6 agent Tim Cranmer goes missing, along with Cranmer’s mistress, he sets out to find them. In this 1995 spy thriller, Cranmer’s bosses try to convince him his Cold War and thus his career are over, but his friend and fellow-spy appears to have identified some new mission, using the £37 million he’s stolen from the Russians to finance it. With this fast-paced, enjoyable read, you’re in the hands of the master.

The Directive by Matthew Quirk – There’s a short window of time between when the U.S. Federal Reserve makes its recommendations and when they’re made public. During that hour or so, they are one of the most closely guarded secrets in the financial world. The Ford brothers want that information, which is worth, well, millions. Clever plotting, persuasive, a fun read from 2014.

Audiobooks

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles – Prepare yourself to fall in love with Count Alexander Rostov, confined after the Revolution to Moscow’s famed hotel, The Metropol. The rich life he builds there never strays from elegance and civility, traits that the new Soviet power-brokers lack utterly. It’s a lovely story, and, as Ann Patchett says, “The book is like a salve.” Great narrator too.

The Lady from Zagreb by Philip Kerr – Kerr’s tenth Bernie Gunther novel, this one has the Berlin police detective on a confidential assignment from Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels—to track down the father of his favorite actress. Gunther meets the woman, and they begin a risky love affair. He does find her father, knee-deep in a bloodbath in Yugoslavia, but he and Goebbels decide to keep his murderous career a secret and tell her he’s dead. Like all secrets, this one has consequences. Gunther’s sly critiques and disdain for the Nazis is another dangerous activity, and you worry he’ll go too far.

A few more thirty-second book reviews are here. Enjoy!

***Selection Day

Mumbai, cricket

photo: David Brossard, creative commons license

By Aravind Adiga, narrated by Sartaj Garewal – Adiga’s 2017 novel purports to be about two brothers, growing up in a Mumbai slum, under the obsessive protection of their cricket-crazy father—a helicopter parent with a swinging cricket bat for a rotor blade. Adiga’s debut novel The White Tiger was such a witty, penetrating exploration of economics and capitalism and how they affect the average person (and a winner of the Man Booker Prize) that I eagerly awaited this one. If he can make economics entertaining, cricket should be a snap, right?

To read the book, it thankfully isn’t necessary to understand cricket’s impenetrable mysteries. The novel is in essence a coming-of-age story, a story of when to hold on to parental values and when to abandon them, of the choices that come the boys’ way and what they do with them, and the intrusions of fate.

There are some wonderful characters: the boys Radha Kumar and his principal rival in cricket and in life, his younger brother Manju, their clueless dad—the lowly chutney salesman Mohan—and the local cricket talent scout Tommy Sir, among many others. Years of effort are guiding the boys’ efforts to “selection day,” when just a couple of up-and-coming 17-year-olds will be chosen to play for Bombay Cricket. That one day will make the boys’ future or break their father’s heart. Possibly both.

One of the best aspects of the book is the relationship between the boys. Said Carmela Ciuraru in the San Francisco Chronicle, “Adiga superbly captures the intimacy between the two brothers, as they bicker, tease and protect each other” and as Manju struggles with his sexuality. Also entertaining were the cricket officials’ efforts to keep the father away from the playing fields. Anyone who’s been especially close to a brother or who’s observed the obsessive parents at their children’s sporting events can identify with the dilemmas of this striving family. Again, says Ciuraru, Adiga’s take is “both satirical and affectionate as he shows how the sport is less a means of lifting gifted kids out of poverty than reinforcing boundaries of privilege in rather ruthless ways.”

The book begins three years before the Selection Day in which Radha will participate and a short concluding section takes place eleven years later. As a tremendous fan of audio books, I was quite disappointed in the narration by Sartaj Garewal and believe it is at least partly responsible for my not becoming fully engaged with this book. Read a print version.

*****The Sellout

Elephant - Sam Felder

photo: Sam Felder, creative commons license

By Paul Beatty, narrated by Prentice Onayemi – I write, knowing this review cannot do justice to this stunning satire—winner of both the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award—which tackles a tricky subject: U.S. race relations and the essential absurdity of the human species. I can only urge you to read it for yourself as a journey to important places, dark and light.

Near the end of the story, Beatty’s narrator, Bonbon Me comments on a black comic who m.c.’s the Dum Dum Donuts open mic nights. He says the comedian “did more than tell jokes; he plucked out your subconscious and beat you silly with it, not until you were unrecognizable, but until you were recognizable.” Beatty has just spent 285 pages doing exactly that with his readers’ every racial attitude and carefully buried prejudice, whether toward blacks, Mexicans, Chinese, or whites.

Perhaps the only way for Americans to approach this difficult subject is with the tools Beatty wields so well: wicked perceptiveness and devastating humor. He slaps them down like a bricklayer troweling thick mortar, building his case brick by brick.

At first I thought his approach was to come at racism obliquely, like an artist using negative space, rendering everything around an object, not the object itself. Draw all the plants and trees, the shape of the dirt patch, the rocks, the pond, the lines of fencing, and every other feature surrounding an elephant and, when you’re done—voilà—out pops the pachyderm.

His descriptions of his southwest Los Angeles neighborhood, his administratively erased home town of Dickens, his father and his friends, with their intellectual floundering and frustrations as members of the Dum Dum Donut Intellectuals, “the local think tank.” All seemed designed to produce that elephant.

We meet unforgettable characters, not least Bonbon himself: erudite, fearless, hell-bent on offending and sure to succeed. Bonbon’s father was a psychologist who subjected his son to bizarre experiments growing up, which the boy’s psyche was lucky to survive. His slave (yes) Hominy Jenkins, was a minor celebrity in his youth as a member of the Little Rascals cast; on-again girlfriend and city bus driver, Marpessa, tries to talk sense to him. And more. Much.

However, as the story proceeds, Beatty brings the hammer down. As a joke, Bonbon puts a temporary sign inside a bus that reads “Priority Seating for Whites.” When it’s inadvertently left in place, behavior on the bus becomes exemplary. People are treated with respect. Marpessa says, “Crip, Blood, or cholo, they press the Stop Request button one time and one fucking time only. You know where the kids go do their homework? Not home, not the library, but the bus. That’s how safe it is.” The sign is just the start of a Bonbon crusade. If there’s a word for “this is sooo crazy, it just might work,” Bonbon must have had that word in mind.

The book’s Prologue at the U.S. Supreme Court was a little slow for me, but when Beatty starts to roll, you are in for an amazing, hilarious, heart-breaking ride. Bonbon never breaks character. But at some point, all the comedy flips and you see it for what it is, the mask of tragedy.

It’s also a feast for people who love language. Beatty’s talent as a poet shows up in the rhythm of his prose; in multi-meaning slant rhymes, like the name of his lawyer, Hamilton Fiske; in direct rhymes, like the reference to his father’s farm, “forty acres and a fool”; and his imagery, “he was unpaid-electricity-bill dark.”

I’m sure reading this book in print would be transformative, with the advantage of being able to go back and reread and pause to reflect. Yet, Prentice Onayemi’s narration of the audio version was pitch-perfect. His Hominy addresses Bonbon as “Massa,” with just the right combination of obsequiousness and insolence; Foy Cheshire and the Dum Dum Donut Intellectuals bloviate convincingly; Marpessa keeps her wits about her. You see each of them in front of you, just like you cannot avoid seeing the elephant in the middle of our collective living room.

Paul Beatty is coming to Princeton on February 8, 2017, and will appear at the Berlind Theater, 4:30 p.m., sponsored by the Lewis Center for the Arts. Open to the public. Free.

***American Quartet

lincoln, Mount Rushmore

photo: Aaron Vowels

By Warren Adler, narrated by Julie Griffin – You can’t help but enjoy the clever criminal lurking behind the scenes in this 1982 classic. Set in Washington, DC, around 1980 (it was a presidential election year, so thereabouts), a time when I lived in the Nation’s Capital, this police procedural includes many reminders of that place and time.

The novel’s protagonist, Fiona Fitzgerald, has abandoned the path expected of her as the daughter of a US Senator and serves as a Sergeant in the DC Metropolitan Police Department’s homicide division—a white woman in what was then a black male bastion. (This is one place where 35 years has made a profound difference. Today, DC’s mayor is a woman, its just-retiring police commissioner is a white woman, and the department is trending white.)

Fitzgerald and her partner face a baffling set of murders, but the reader/listener knows something the police do not: the perpetrator is recreating, to the extent practicable, the assassinations of past U.S. presidents on their anniversary dates. After the first two “copycat crimes” (James Garfield and William McKinley), you anticipate the perpetrator’s inevitable further recreations (John F. Kennedy and Abraham Lincoln)—with a growing sense of dread. Garfield, McKinley, Kennedy, Lincoln: the American quartet.

I found it hard to believe no one in the police, the media, or the local citizenry—full of  history and political buffs—tumbled to the similarities between current and past events, especially after the two deaths on November 22, the anniversary of JFK’s murder. Adler makes the point that Americans are oblivious about their history, and I’ll give him that. But, thanks to television, the Kennedy killing is seared into the national memory, especially in Washington DC. In 1980, it was only 17 years in the past. About how long ago Y2K is now.

Fitzgerald (sharing a name with the martyred president) may be distracted by her love life. Her politician boyfriend faces a tough reelection battle in Queens. His congressional district’s demographics have moved away from him, and he needs cash (some new ideas also would help). What might save him is the financial support of failed Senatorial candidate Thaddeus Remington, a wealthy player in the Washington party circuit. I liked all the politics and, if there were some aspects of the story that seemed far-fetched, the time-capsule attributes were strong.

Listening to a book is a different experience than reading it. Most of the principal characters in this book are men, and Julie Griffin does a good job with them. Yet, I kept checking my iPod to make sure I hadn’t inadvertently clicked a 1.5 reading speed. Also, I wonder that there’s no one (the equivalent of an editor) to correct startling mis-readings. The point isn’t to ding the narrator on the kind of mistake any of us might make from time to time, but to emphasize that such persistent errors—like egregious typographical errors—take the listener out of the story.

*****Hamlet, Prince of Denmark: A Novel

Hamlet, Kenneth Branagh

Kenneth Branagh as Hamlet

By A.J. Hartley and David Hewson, narrated by Richard Armitage – Ok, Ok, before you say “been there, done that Hamlet thing—five times, maybe ten!” this is another Hamlet animal altogether. As an inveterate audiobook fan, I will say that the Hartley/Hewson Macbeth, narrated by Alan Cumming (be still, my heart) was one of the best audio books I’ve ever “read.” So, I was eagerly anticipating listening to the their Hamlet.

Perhaps this Hamlet doesn’t quite reach the stratospheric genius of Macbeth, but it gives the listener plenty to chew on. I think Hartley (a Shakespeare scholar) and Hewson (a mystery/thriller writer, interviewed here)—an inspired pairing if there ever was one—have truly done it again. They fill in the leaps and gaps in the Bard’s plot, they provide background information that heightens appreciation of the stakes and therefore the tension, they infuse the text with modern psychological insights. In short, they have made Hamlet more real than perhaps you have ever felt him before.

No need to dwell on plot. We all know it. But what they have done in novelizing Shakespeare’s text is brilliant. First, they’re fleshed out some (potential) action scenes. The play’s glancing reference to pirates receives a full treatment here, which shows Hamlet to be more a man of action than the black-garbed, skull-staring  brooder we have come to associate with the Danish prince. Ophelia’s death also has a much more robust development than the usual wan, flower-strewn suicide.

Perhaps Hartley and Hewson’s cleverest stroke was in creating a son of Yorick to be Hamlet’s constant friend and goad, to share and prompt him with the lines of the famous soliloquies. I was so taken with this creation that I didn’t fully appreciate its subtle origins and intent until the story’s conclusion. Listening to the interviews with Hartley and Hewson that follow the novel explains how and why they arrived at this fictional device.

Purists, take note. There is nothing here that is not fully suggested or believable in the context of the play. Before you get your doublet in a knot, recall that the play itself was not created out of cloth entire, but built on folk tales and previous works. The authors are merely taking the creative armamentarium of Shakespeare himself and aiming it at 21st century sensibilities.

Hamlet is a ghost story; it is a murder story; it is a tale of guilt and revenge; it is about treachery and lust. Everything that makes a good crime thriller!

Richard Armitage is well suited to take on the narrative challenge. He has appeared in numerous television and film roles and played John Proctor in The Old Vic’s production of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, where he earned an Olivier Award nomination. He won the 2014 Best Audiobook of the Year Award for this rendering of Hamlet. While it’s also available for the Kindle, let Armitage tell you the story.

This review appeared on CrimeFictionLover.com.

*****Redemption Road

rural church

photo: Wayne Stadler, creative commons license

Written by John Hart, narrated by Scott Shepherd. You’d never guess this crime thriller is award-winning author John Hart’s first novel with a female protagonist. He writes from her point of view compellingly and expertly slips himself into her high heels where gender perspective makes a difference—as a detective partner, as a daughter, and as unofficial guardian to two troubled teens.

Elizabeth Black is a detective in a mid-sized North Carolina city who over 13 years has proved herself a good cop, though the men around her seem anxious to dismiss all that as soon as she encounters difficulties. And she encounters them by the bushel.

When a radio call leads her to an abandoned house where a missing 18-year-old girl, Channing Shore, might be hidden away, Elizabeth doesn’t wait for backup. A few hours later, Elizabeth and Channing walk out. In the basement are the bodies of Brendan and Titus Monroe with 18 bullet wounds. Bullets lodged in the floor suggest at least some of the shots occurred after the men were down.

There’s no question Channing was raped and tortured for 40 hours and that Elizabeth saved her. But the case has drawn the attention of the North Carolina attorney general, who sends state police investigators to determine whether the brothers’ death involved police brutality. A newspaper headline says it all: “Hero Cop or Angel of Death?”

As a rookie, Elizabeth looked up to and perhaps even loved a detective named Adrian Wall, a detective’s detective whom other cops and the media admired. Wall has spent the last dozen years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit. He’s released just as the pressure on Elizabeth Black is mounting, but he’s no sooner out than a second woman’s body is found killed in the same way. Then a third.

From that point on, the two stories—Elizabeth’s quest to clear her reputation and be reinstated on the force and her desire to prove Adrian Wall’s innocence of the women’s murders are intertwined.

One consistent ally is retired lawyer Faircloth “Crybaby” Jones, nearly 90, who unsuccessfully defended Wall during his trial and has regretted that failure ever since. Crybaby is a wonderful character who combines the courtliness of the Old South with a fox’s wily instincts.

In a post-book interview, author Hart revealed that he’d basically written the book—some 300 pages—before discovering that the protagonist was not whom he had chosen. He found that the center of the book, its heart, was Elizabeth. Changing the point of view of a novel involves a lot more than changing “he’s” to “she’s.” That was a decision with time-gobbling consequences that has really paid off for readers.

Actor Scott Shepherd does a brilliant job narrating this novel with its range of characters. Often a female narrator is selected for a book with a female protagonist, but his rendering of Elizabeth is perfect. She’s female, but not in any clichéd way. The same goes for Channing and the several other women. He has just the right amount of easygoing South in his voice and avoids caricature. Amazing how one talent can produce all these different people! Just terrific.

***A Tapping at My Door

The Raven, MWA, Poe

Page by Ian Burt (photo: c2.staticflickr.com)

By David Jackson, narrated by Jonathan Keeble – The early chapters of this police procedural are tremendously intriguing. A woman copper in Liverpool is murdered in her back garden, with a dead raven splayed over her face. Only when the crime scene investigators remove the bird do they learn her eyes have been gouged—pecked?—out. And that the raven has a note attached to its leg saying ‘nevermore.’

Even for people who are not fans of Edgar Allen Poe, that’s spooky. And, it’s a puzzle the police must struggle to work out. Not too long afterward, another police officer is found murdered in his home, again with a dead bird nearby, carrying a new message.

While these crimes are bizarre, at least there’s something to work with. Both murdered officers were implicated in the death in custody of a mentally challenged youth a few years earlier. An investigation cleared the two officers of wrongdoing, but the family and a large segment of the public still blame them for this death. Accordingly, the family is questioned, with all the renewed mutual hostility one might anticipate.

When two more police are killed who seem to have no connection to the earlier tragedy, what are the investigators to think? Are these new deaths merely a diversion? Jackson does a good job portraying the fractured relationships between the community and the coppers, writ small in this family tragedy, and writ large. He presents the action through alternating perspectives, mostly those of DS Nathan Cody and the unknown murderer, whose motives ultimately—well, you can pass judgment on that.

Cody is the principal investigator of the crimes, and to his surprise he’s teamed up with a new murder unit detective, Megan Webley. Unbeknownst to the powers that be, Cody and Webley were once an item, engaged to be married even, until his love of the job put a wedge between them. They dance around each other, not wanting to bring up the past and wanting to get on with their current assignment. There’s a cop-killer out there, after all.

But Cody become unhinged in several run-of-the-mill situations and Webley is starting to doubt his mental stability. His strange outbursts and reckless self-endangerment hearken back to an experience a year earlier in which he was held and tortured by a mysterious group of kidnappers.

About the time of the lengthy flashback in which Cody relives this hostage situation for the sympathetic Webley—an experience he has refused to seek any counseling for—I began to lose interest. The gruesome nature of the torture seemed intended to titillate, not interest me in Cody as a character. From there on out, the plot followed the well-trodden path of escalating craziness and bad decisions, woman-of-interest in danger, and drawn-out final resolution, with a particularly ham-handed, flashinglightsallaround ‘sequel!!’ signaled at the end.

Since this was an audiobook, the narration inevitably affected my reaction. In some passages Jonathan Keeble was terrific, but in others, it was as if he were narrating a silent film (you can listen to a bit through the Amazon link below). They were jarringly melodramatic. In other words, a mixed bag.

****The Narrow Road to the Deep North

Thailand-Burma Death Railway, Pacific Theater

Hellfire Pass (photo: David Diliff, creative commons license, CC BY SA 2.5)

By Richard Flanagan, read by David Atlas – This epic tale from a Tasmanian author won the 2015 Man Booker Prize. It centers on the life of Dorrigo Evans, a young surgeon, before, during, and after World War II, when he eventually becomes regarded as an Australian war hero.

A notorious womanizer in later life, Dorrigo can never recapture his early passion for Amy, the young wife of his uncle, and their lost love. Their affair was cut short when he received his orders to ship out and he had no chance to say good-bye to her then, or ever, because of two lies.

During the war, his unit is captured by the Japanese. Its members are forced, despite illness, injury, starvation, and dangerously impossible conditions to work on a railway “for the Emperor,” the infamous Thailand-Burma Death Railway. An estimated 112,000 Asian forced laborers and Allied prisoners of war died during its construction. If you’ve seen The Bridge on the River Kwai, you have an inkling. Flanagan’s own father was a survivor of the Death Railway and died the day Richard told him this novel was finally finished. “He trusted me not to get his story wrong,” Flanagan has said.

Because Dorrigo is a surgeon and an officer, the Japanese don’t require him to work on the construction, but he is plenty busy managing the desperately ill and dying men in his care.

After the war, the narrative takes a detour to tell us the fate of several characters from the camp—its head man, Major Nakamura; the reviled Korean contract guard the prisoners called the Goanna; and a group of ex-prisoners who have an alcohol-fueled rendezvous in memory of one of their fallen.

The climactic (or climatic, given its meteorological link) section of the book involves Dorrigo’s attempts to rescue his wife and children from the devastating fires overtaking a large swath of Tasmania near the capital of Hobart, another real-life event that took place in 1967.

Even though the book is described as “a love story unfolding over half a century,” I thought Flanagan’s best, most moving writing involved the prisoner of war camp. His detailed portrayals of several of the men, especially one named Darky Gardiner, are vivid and compelling. The author did a service in trying to explain the inexplicable when he also probed the character of the camp overlords.

Americans generally know less about World War II’s Pacific Theater than events in Europe, though it was no less horrifying. Some readers may be turned off by the violence of the book, but it’s a war story as well as a romance, and war is not romantic. Stick with it, and you’ll have an indelible picture of the suffering inflicted and endured. Atlas’s narration is straightforward and true.

The book’s title—a metaphor for the railway itself—comes from a famous book by Japanese poet Bashō, which Flanagan’s character Colonel Kota (a beheading expert) says “sums up in one book the genius of the Japanese spirit.” Flanagan explained in an excellent interview in The Telegraph, “I wanted to use what was most beautiful and extraordinary in their culture in writing a book about what was most terrible, because I thought that might liberate me from judgment. And it did help me.”