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New Recording Does Justice to Hard-Boiled Gumshoe Lew Archer

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

KCRW released a recording of Ross Macdonald’s mystery, “Sleeping Beauty,” a few years ago that was a top-quality, full-cast production. The radio station has achieved the same standard with another Macdonald whodunit, “The Zebra-Striped Hearse.” (Audio Editions; unabridged fiction; six cassettes; eight hours; $29.95; full-cast recording.)

The story opens when wealthy Isobel Blackwell meets with private investigator Lew Archer just a few minutes before a meeting her husband had scheduled with the detective. She hurriedly tells Archer she is worried about her stepdaughter Harriet. The young woman is hoping to marry a penniless, rather suspicious artist just as she is about to inherit a sizable trust fund.

When Isobel’s husband arrives, he is angry at his wife’s interference and demands that Archer investigate the artist, Burke Damis, to help him stop the marriage. Archer agrees, not because he particularly wants the case but because Mrs. Blackwell intrigues him.

The Blackwells’ daughter turns out to be more complicated than Archer anticipated, and many of the characters in her life have rather ominous secrets they would prefer left unearthed. The private eye is soon traveling from Mexico to San Francisco to Lake Tahoe to Los Angeles, as suspects, and bodies, begin to pile up.

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Though originally published in 1962, Macdonald’s dialogue is peppy and has lost nothing to age. The original score is atmospheric and well suited to the material. Actor Harris Yulin directed both this production and “Sleeping Beauty.” He played the part of Lew Archer in both, bringing forth the sensitive side of this hard-boiled detective. His is just one among an array of interesting voices. The cast of 40 includes such well-known actors as Edward Asner, Tyne Daly, Joely Fisher, Mary Kay Place, Joe Pantoliano and Harry Shearer. Some are standouts not only for their acting skills, but also for their interesting voices, such as Pamela Reed, Jennifer Tilly and Richard Masur. There is not a weak performance in the bunch.

This is a very polished piece. The sound effects never override the dialogue and the actors obviously spent time rehearsing. Sounds from automobiles, birds, smashing glass and ringing telephones instill a vibrancy into the production. The audio book also contains a bonus, as half of the last cassette features an interesting profile of Macdonald, the pen name for Ken Millar (1915-83).

*

Small, independent companies often produce only one or two audio books a year. For the most part, the publishers tend to be extremely diligent about recording, editing and packaging. However, the stories are often weak, as they are usually acquired from the public domain, where they should have remained.

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Hal Glatzer overcame this problem by writing his own original “audio-play,” “Too Dead to Swing” (Audio-Playwrights; unabridged fiction; four cassettes; six hours; $29.95; full-cast recording). For information, call (415) 487-0720. Set just before the war in 1940, this musical mystery is the cat’s meow.

Glatzer says this is the first of a series of mysteries featuring musician Katy Green. In this adventure, she joins the Ultra Belles, an all-girl swing band, as a replacement when one of the gals is nearly murdered. More crimes occur while the band is traveling, though the culprit leaves enough clues for the clever Katy to eventually piece together a solution.

The mystery is solid enough that I couldn’t figure it out until it was almost over. However, the characters and presentation are what’s fun here. Glatzer created colorful personalities, from a bandleader to socialites to a reefer-smoking musician fond of touting the Communist party line. His period details are spot on, and he livens up the proceedings with catchy original songs and music, all of which are reprised at the end of the novel.

Though a few minor characters are a bit over the top, for the most part this is well acted by a troupe of seasoned Broadway actors. Simon Jones is perfect as the slightly snippy, very bright agent for the band. Susan Egan is well cast as the youthful Katy, and Ann Hampton Calloway has a lovely, mellow voice as the band’s singer. Sound effects are used, but with restraint. They bring texture to the story without interfering with performances.

Another plus is the packaging. A sturdy plastic case is decorated with a cover that could have been culled from a 1940s pulp fiction paperback. Braille was thoughtfully placed on both the outside package and on each tape, making this especially useful for the vision-impaired.

However, it would have been useful had the cast been listed with the part each played, instead of making us guess.

Rochelle O’Gorman reviews audio books every other week. Next week: Dick Lochte on mystery books.

The plastic case cover, which strongly resembles a 1940s pulp fiction paperback, features Braille on the outside and on each tape inside.

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