Mysteries present special challenges for audiobook listeners and narrators alike. Clues, revelations and red herrings must be emphasized just enough. Diverse suspects need to be delineated while sleuths and other series characters must ring true across many books, consistent yet evolving. When done well, we can’t wait to follow the familiar voice of our favorite detective in title after title. Great narrator/detective pairings can carry listeners for hundreds of hours.
Veteran narrator Grover Gardner has voiced 24 of Andrea Camilleri’s wry, Sicilian-set mysteries featuring gruff police inspector Salvo Montalbano, and we expect he’ll finish out the last few titles yet to be translated. Gardner avoids lapsing into superfluous accents for the books’ all-Italian cast, and he expertly deadpans an irascible detective whose devotion to justice is only matched by his love of a good meal. Sicily offers little of the former and much of the latter. Gardner makes juggling complex plot lines and colorful supporting characters look easy. Start at the beginning of this addictive series with “The Shape of Water” — and keep your favorite Italian takeout restaurant on speed dial as the cravings for pasta set in.
Another beautifully balanced rendition of a lighter mystery series: Suzanne Toren’s narration of Julia Spencer-Fleming’s series featuring priest and ex-Army helicopter pilot Clare Ferguson. The series debut, “In the Bleak Midwinter,” begins when an infant is left on the doorstep of St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in upstate New York. The riddle of the child’s mother soon gives way to the mystery of her murder, with Ferguson and Millers Kill Police Chief Russ Van Alstyne on the case. Listeners can enjoy Toren’s relish for the investigatory and romantic chemistry between priest and policeman across eight titles to date in this slow-burning, atmospheric series. For cozy mystery buffs who prefer a sweeter confection, Toren brings wit and warmth to her graceful narration of all two dozen of Joanna Fluke’s culinary mysteries featuring bakery owner Hannah Swenson, starting with “Chocolate Chip Cookie Murder.” Poised and particular, Toren keeps her characters and her listeners on their toes.
It seems clergy with military backgrounds have a knack for solving crime. Witness Anglican vicar and ex-MI5 agent Max Tudor, hero of G.M. Malliet’s English village mystery series that starts with “Wicked Autumn.” Michael Page’s crisp, droll reading rises to the challenges of these traditional puzzlers, which brim with large casts of varied, often eccentric suspects and plots laid out according to the painstaking “fair play” mechanics of an Agatha Christie plot. Page contrasts the series’ overall breezy elegance with the more grounded, world-weary presence of Tudor, a man who has seen life at its worst and hopes for better. Page’s reading elegantly bridges the classic and contemporary elements of this outstanding series, which numbers seven titles to date.
For listeners who appreciate more hard-boiled mysteries, James Lee Burke’s Louisiana-set Dave Robicheaux books are gritty perfection, with two exemplary narrations to enjoy. The first several volumes in the series were narrated by Mark Hammer, whose magnificently dilapidated drawl burns like a shot of straight bourbon. Utterly convincing as a haunted, recovering alcoholic detective, Hammer reads in a lazy, reflective pace that highlights Burke’s descriptive brilliance, which rivals most literary authors. Hammer’s final Burke title was the fittingly elegiac “Last Car to Elysian Fields,” in which Robicheaux returns to New Orleans to protect an old friend, and is drawn back into that past that Faulkner famously wrote “is never dead. It’s not even past.”
Will Patton, who had been skillfully recording abridged versions of the series (sadly, stripped of much of Burke’s vivid description) inherited the full-length recordings with the next title, “Crusader’s Cross.” Patton’s pace is a bit faster and more taut, his voice smoother — more bourbon and Coke than straight whiskey. The emphasis shifts from introspection to immediacy and from the mind of Robicheaux himself to a more balanced, fully-realized cast of characters. Both narrators are masterful, and it is fascinating to hear how their different approaches pull out different elements of this consistently excellent series, now up to 22 titles.
James Lee Burke fans may also enjoy the moody Lew Griffin series from James Sallis. Set in New Orleans, these crime novels are not really mysteries in the conventional sense, focusing more on the profound mysteries of life than on the solution of a crime. Griffin’s existential musings are couched in the tropes and sardonic lyricism of hard-boiled mystery, peppered with literary and cultural allusions. Written in the 1990s, the entire series was recorded by beloved Northwest actor G. Valmont Thomas about a decade ago. Thomas, who died in 2017, was a seasoned stage actor, equally at home with August Wilson and William Shakespeare, and his ear for poetry gives Sallis’ noir lyricism its full due. Thomas’ smoky, sincere voice beautifully captures the struggle between despair and hope within Griffin’s soul, and the piquant savor of a curiosity that — like New Orleans itself — refuses to die. The series begins with “The Long-Legged Fly”; all six books were recently reprinted by Soho Press.