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BBC Radio 4 In Touch
06 May 2008

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Two regular reviewers choose their favourite crime novels and discuss their experiences and preferences when it comes to listening audio books.

Vidar Hjardeng is a television producer with ITV Central and he reviews audio books for a range of publications.

Sue Arnold is a journalist, columnist, and currently audio book reviewer for The Guardian.


Title: A Dark Devotion
Author: Clare Francis
Narrator: Lindsay Duncan
Publisher: Macmillan Audio Books
ISBN: 9780230532564

Title: The One From the Other
Author: Philip Kerr
Narrator: Jeff Harding
Publisher: ISIS Audio Books
ISBN-10: 1847242162
ISBN-13: 978-1847242167

Title: One Under
Author: Graham Hurley
Narrator: Tim Pepper
Publisher: ISIS Audio Books
ISBN-10: 0753126966
ISBN-13: 978-0753126967


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TX: 06.05.08 2040-2100



Good evening. Being read to about bloody murder and all the appalling things one human being can do to another is a strangely soothing experience, well for the three of us anyway. Which is why we've chosen crime fiction as the topic for one of our occasional audio book reviews. Crime fiction and thrillers make up a substantial part of the audio book catalogue and they're hugely popular, so we've asked our regular reviewers - Sue Arnold, who reviews regularly for the Guardian; Vidar Hjardeng who does the same for a range of publications and is also a producer for ITV Central to pick out their favourite book of the moment and cast a general eye over the state of the genre. And as a keen reader myself I'll be chipping in from time to time.

Let's go straight into the first book. Vidar, tell us what you've chosen.

Peter, crime fiction has such a wealth of material in spoken word form and choosing one that I wanted to recommend was very difficult. I mean you've got Donna Leon bringing to life Venice with reading by Andrew Sachs and her lovely Commissario Brunetti character; Peter Robinson is read by Nathaniel Parker, very often, his Swaledale detective work. And I was going to choose the latest by CJ Sanson, who in fact was the author I recommended last time round, but because of that I've actually avoided doing too much plugging of his Matthew Shardlake ...

Otherwise we'd suspect it's some kind of deal.

So I've gone for an author whose novels, until recently, I'd not read any of before. Clare Francis, who may be familiar to many people, her book that I've chosen is called Dark Devotion. I enjoyed the story, I particularly enjoyed the reading. We're talking about audio books and listening to people reading to you and I have to say Lynsey Duncan has for me one of the best voices. And I just enjoyed the story, for me believable characters, almost two plots in this as well, you have the lawyer from a small firm of solicitors in London going back to help a childhood friend find out what's happened to his wife, a wife who apparently is a paragon of virtue but actually beneath the surface that may not be true. There's also a sub-plot about the lawyer from London and her partner and whether or not he is getting involved in another world of crime, which in a sense could almost make another novel. The bit I've chosen which I think brings to life both Lynsey's delivery as a narrator and also the atmosphere of the Norfolk marshes with sluice gates being removed and water gushing in, is the bit where Alexandra O'Neil, who is the lawyer who goes back to help in this investigation, and Will Dearden find the body.

Clip from Dark Devotion
Staring at the hypnotic rush of water I tried to persuade myself that I might be looking for anything at all. But the shaking of my hand, the dryness in my throat told a different story. And still the gate came up. Now the water was spewing out in a massive torrent straight on to the meadow. A glimmer of white appeared, deep down under the gate, deep under the water. The torch shook in my hand. I steadied it. A white something - oh god. I shouted then, I shouted Will's name. He came and crouched at my side. He had the long wooden pole in his hand. He pushed the pole down into the cataract, down towards the white thing. The white thing rose up, took shape, became - I felt a rush of horror, I dropped my head onto my chest, I forced myself to look up again. A leg - and behind it, rising slowly but inexorably, as though freeing itself from the ouse beneath, the rest of her body. Will gave a great bellow. I shouted too. Someone was crying - oh god, oh god - and it might have been him or me or both of us. I grabbed the torch so that the scene below was plunged into darkness. I heard him moving, I heard him scrabbling but in the dim light from the deflective beam it took me a moment to understand what he was doing. By the time I realised he had one foot over the edge and was lowering the other ready to jump down into the water. No!

And we'll leave it there and people will have to go off and find out what she does next.

Well let me bring in Sue Arnold, who can hardly contain herself, as usual, to talk about this. But Sue, glowing references from Vidar, what did you think?

I wish I could say the same. I think Lynsey Duncan's wonderful but I think the book itself is pretty second rate actually, to tell you the truth, I'm not really interested in Will Dearden and his mother and all that. I like Alex O'Neil, I think the narrator is jolly interesting and I much prefer her story and married to this drunken solicitor who's doing dodgy deals with clients and stuff. The actual Norfolk story I found not absolutely grabbing and to tell you the truth if they talk once more about those wretched sluices, I'm not quite sure what this sluice does but apparently it floods fields ...

Well Dorothy L. Sayers did pretty well with them in the Nine Tailors, the sluice gates play a big part in that don't they, that's what it reminded me of?

The more they said the sluices, the sluices I kept thinking of the Hunchback of Notre Dame when he kept saying - The bells, the bells. And I thought - The sluices, the sluices. I can live without these sluices. But did you like the characters - did you find them sympathetic, didn't think ..?

Well I agree with you, particularly about Alexandra O'Neil actually and actually my point earlier, Sue, about her story being the sub-plot could have made a novel in itself, I'd agree with that too. But no I did enjoy the story and also I enjoyed the atmosphere in Norfolk, it's a part of the country I've got to know quite well over the last few years and I thought the - it's one of the good examples of words painting pictures and I could imagine a lot of that, you know, stormy nights, traipsing along - dare I mention them - past the sluices, sorry Sue.

Can I say just one thing - I won't go into the novel because you've both given it a fair old run for its money. I liked - I thought Lynsey Duncan's voice, she's great, but I found her men a bit difficult, it's quite interesting, when you've got one reader - and this is obviously an economic thing for audio book producers, you know, they don't pay two people if you can get one to do it - and sometimes women doing men and men doing women doesn't quite work, I wasn't convinced by Lynsey's men - they all sounded - they all sounded sinister without exception as far as I could see.

Well and as for your Norfolk thing I'm afraid my riposte to that is Noel Coward's very flat Norfolk, very flat.

The reading wasn't at least - I can agree on that.

Okay, this is a good moment to switch. Sue, you've chosen a very different kind of book with a very different kind of narrator. Tell us what it is.

I have and I do feel that with crime stories I think they stand or fall by their sleuths and if they're good sleuths doesn't matter if the plot's a bit ropey, if the setting's not particularly exciting, but the sleuth is all and for me Bernie Gunther is all, he's so interesting. This is set in 1949 and I'll quickly tell you that Philip Kerr wrote three Bernie Gunther novels, crime stories, set in 1936 and then he let him go and 15 years later he hooked up with Bernie Gunther again in 1949. So to start with he's just an ordinary German citizen in - with all the Nazi sub-culture of the '30s, 1949 he's really been through the mill, he's been in the SS, he's hated what he had to do so he left the SS and was sent as a punishment to the Russian front - the Eastern front - he was taken prisoner in a Russian prisoner of war camp and he incredibly has survived. So in other words he's been through it all - he's seen everything, he's done everything, he's survived, he's world weary, he's cynical. I tell you what he is - he's ...

He's Philip Marlowe.

.. Philip Marlowe. He's Philip Marlowe in Berlin. And he's brilliant. He's sort of lippy, he does incredibly brave things, you think don't say that, don't do that and he does because he's just so difficult and I love that kind of character. Now the story is brilliant. He's gone back to being a sleuth and he's now looking for extraordinary things - he's actually looking for missing Nazis who should be at the Nuremberg Trials being indicted for war crimes and they're on the run. And this typical kind of Philip Marlowe scenario, Chandler scenario, this leggy blonde with three very beautiful scars on her right cheek ...

You don't think it's almost too much an imitation of Chandler do you?

Well - then we'll get to the reading because Jeff Harding, without Jeff Harding it's nothing and this is the interesting thing - Jeff Harding is American, Bernie Gunther is German and we're an English audience, so why on earth is an American reading it - simply because he's a very odd sort of German who sounds like Philip Marlowe and the reading I think is almost 90% of it.

Clip from A Quiet Flame
Being a detective I spotted Father Gotterweiner [phon.] within a few seconds of going through the door. There were lots of things that gave it away. The black suit, the black shirt, the crucifix hanging around his neck, the little white halo of collar. His was not a face that made you think of Jesus, so much as Pontius Pilot. The thick dark eyebrows were the only hair on his head. The skull looked like the rotating dome roof on the Gottingham Observatory and each lobe less ear resembled a demon's wing. His lips were as thick as his fingers and his nose as broad and hooked as the beak on a giant octopus. He had a mole on his left cheek that was the size and colour of a five pfennig piece and walnut brown eyes like the walnut on a grip of a Walter PPK. One of them picked me out like a shoemaker's awl and he came over, almost as if he could smell the cop on my shoes. It could just as easily have been the cognac on my breath. But I didn't figure him for the teetotaller type, anymore than I could picture him singing in the Vienna Boys' Choir. If the [indistinct word] had still been siring popes Father Gotterweiner would have been what one looked like.

Did you not - weren't you fascinated by it?

Let me bring in Vidar because I've got a feeling you'll have a slightly take on it.

I was going to say - I thought this, Sue, was a bit like the Curate's Egg, good in parts, I thought the descriptions of some of Vienna, of some of the characters was fantastic. I agree Jeff Harding actually did read it very well, I was thinking Kerry Shale could have probably read it well too. But Jeff Harding was a new discovery and actually was good. I have to say though for the main character himself I found at times he was just that bit too much. I mean as you're being beaten to a pulp or sort of facing death and all the rest of it he still had the smart Alec line and all the rest of it. Maybe I'm a cynical old hack and I just think ...

Well Marlowe could do that too, I mean they beat him to death regularly and he still had a good line.

They did and ...

That's what makes him better than your Andy Daziels you know.

Yeah I mean - I mean it's good - it's good fiction, I just thought - how credible. It took me a while to get into it and once I had got into it I agree with you it was brilliantly written and also very well read. But it took me two or three tapes or CDs to actually sort of really start being captivated by it.

I want to say something which you will all regard as almost sacrilegious in that we've talked about abridgement on this programme quite often and I've always been absolutely dead against it but don't you think sometimes - I mean this is about 12 CDs isn't it, maybe even longer, and it's unreserved cynicism all the way through, didn't you ever think - Sue - this could be a bit shorter really?

No I thought it could be longer, I thought it could even have been longer. I just think the actual setting is so sort of - it's a mixture of the Third Man, because it's Vienna with all the three parties and all that, it's Philip Marlowe and it's a bit like Fatherland as well, it's so exciting, the plot is very tight and very complicated but very good didn't you think?

I thought it was a complicated plot. It was a new author for me and I thought the plot was very good. I did think though there were times - and I think the opening actually because it starts unusually perhaps with a prologue which I thought was interesting - but I did feel, Sue, that a little bit of judicious editing, I'm not a purist about abridgement, but I just thought it could have been tightened up and made even better, he said controversially.

Just one final thing before we leave it and it's on length because I just wondered whether anyone ever did the sacrilegious thing of speeding up, of course you can compress speech nowadays, did either of you ever do that?

Yes I did in your one, I'm afraid to say Peter, and also ...

Well we'll come to that.

Well I have to say I did a little bit in yours Sue, I have to say, but we've all been guilty of it now and again I'm sure, such is technology you can make it happen you see.

Okay. But I did enjoy the Bernie Gunther book and he is a great character.

Okay my turn. In some ways I've done this the wrong way round because I'd started to read this book in Braille and liked it and wanted to bring it to the attention of people who prefer audio books, discovered there was a version, unabridged too, and so went ahead. Just to tell you why I chose it first, it's called One Under, it's by Graham Hurley and as you know quite often the heroes of books and heroines are places as much as they're people and Graham Hurley's hero, sometimes anti-hero, is Portsmouth. Now I found this, as a southerner, really refreshing because so often the places in crime fiction are either gritty northern cities or Scottish cities - Rankin's Edinburgh, John Harvey's Nottingham, Chandler's LA - and then of course there are all the books set in London but not in the real south, so I really enjoyed the fact that Graham Hurley, who lives in Portsmouth and loves it I know, is writing about places I know - Langston Harbour, Gun Wharf Quay, Fratton Park the Portsmouth ground, I think as a Southampton fan I can just about bring myself to say that, and the villages north of Portsmouth - Waterlooville, Denmead and Buriton which is where the central crime of this book is committed. And it also involves another of my obsessions - trains. In fact let me just play you an extract which sets the scene more completely than I can do.

Clip from One Under
Deep in a cutting came the sudden gape of the Buriton tunnel. He slowed to 40 miles an hour and sounded the horn, raising a flurry of wood pigeons from the surrounding trees. Then the world suddenly went black. The clatter of the train pulled tight around him and he peered into the darkness, waiting for his eyes to adjust. Moments later, still enfolded by the tunnel, he had a sudden glimpse of something ahead on the line. In the dim throw of light from the front of the train the oncoming shape resolved itself into a body, spread-eagled on the nearside rail. Then for a split second he was looking at a pair of legs scissored open and the unmistakeable whiteness of naked flesh. Instinctively a single reflex movement he took the speed off and pushed the brake handle fully forward, feeling his body tensing for the impact. Then came a jolt, nothing major, and he knew with a terrible certainty that his eyes hadn't betrayed him - that what he'd seen, what he'd felt, was even now being shredded in the roaring darkness beneath the train.

Pretty horrifying stuffy. And Vidar didn't you listen to this on a train?

I have to say I listened to this on a train travelling up and down to the North East over the bank holiday and it was fairly poignant I have to say. That opening is probably one of the best openings for a crime novel I've read or listened to in a long time and it's possibly one of the strongest points, if not the strongest point, to the novel as far as I'm concerned. I thought it was particularly gripping, I don't know whether you'd agree with that Sue?

I think actually - this is a bloke's book, this is a quintessential lad's book about trains and football tickets and chaps throwing up after Chinese takeaways. I mean honestly, it's not my - and there's a very good reason people don't write about Portsmouth because actually it's very boring - Portsmouth. And when that chap says the area of Portsmouth he was at, if you would compare it to haircuts, it was a grade 1, what does that mean - very short on what?

No you're absolutely wrong there, I spring to the defence of Portsmouth because Portsmouth is a very unusual southern town, it ought to be a northern town really. And that's what makes it quite interesting, it's almost ...

Well the policeman was unusual as well, I find Farraday - is it Farraday - and Winter so dreary, they're so run of the mill.....

Oh no I don't think they are you see, no I thought Winter in particular was a character who developed - one thing that I thought developed as the book went on as well was Tim Pepper, who when he began reading it I thought - Mmm, not sure about this, it's going to be dead pan. But I thought ...

About as Peppery as cold cabbage soup I think, honestly dreadful.

But I thought that his delivery grew on me. And actually with the characters - the plods if you like, the Winters and the Farradays of this world - I thought their characters came out very fully and I thought the plot developed on several levels and I enjoyed the book more than I thought perhaps I would at one stage but I still thought the beginning was gripping so I must be a blokeish listener Sue because I thought it was good.

I don't think it's quite as blokeish as that. It still brings us to this issue of length though, I mean if it's Anna Karenina perhaps it's a classic you can sustain but I must admit I doubt whether - I'm not sure - I ran out of counting how many CDs there were but it's quite a long one.

Very - 500 and odd pages. And did we absolutely need this blow by blow day 17, 1142 p.m. - why do we need this police procedure detail?

Because that's what it is.

That's what it is though, it's a procedural novel.

Well that's what I mean - it's blokeish - women don't care about things like 11.47, unless it's time to take the Bakewell tart out - oh isn't that a sexist remark.

I think it is rather. Do you like trying out these new authors though Sue, just to round us off, anyone that you want to draw to our attention?

Well yes I absolutely do you have to pick them all to know what to avoid. I mean I did a review the other day of somebody I've never read before - Robert Crais, who's one of those American blockbuster bestsellers like Patricia Cornwell, Karen Slaughter, James Paterson and I thought I couldn't bear this and actually it was brilliant. The only trouble is I came in at book 17, so I didn't know why the hero was so weird and spooky because you obviously have to have the back story. But people like James Paterson I couldn't give a fig for and Robert Ludlum - Robert Ludlum has been dead 10 years and they're still churning out his stories, now how do they get that?

One quick plug to end with Vidar?

My greatest plug - not that new but every book that comes out I still enjoy and again because of the character and he's less sort of dramatic in terms of crime fiction but it's Alexander McCall-Smith Precious Remotswe and the Number One Ladies Detective Agency, great listening.

And that's all we've got time for. All the details of the books can be found both with our action line on 0800 044 044 and on our website. Sue Arnold, Vidar Hjardeng thanks very much indeed. From me Peter White, my producer Cheryl Gabriel and the rest of the team goodbye.

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