Monday, August 10, 2009

The Zebra-Striped Hearse by Ross Macdonald (unabridged audio book performed by a full cast)

Retired colonel Mark Blackwell hires private detective Lew Archer to ivestigate his daughter Harriet's new fiancee, painter/layabout(/murderer?) Burke Damis, in The Zebra-Striped Hearse. (The title vehicle actually has a pivotal but otherwise tangential role.) It was the tenth in the popular private-eye series by author Ross Macdonald (the pseudonym of Kenneth Millar), widely considered to be among the top handful of best writers of detective fiction, especially of the hard-boiled noir variety.

Archer begins the case rather simply, but it soon becomes increasingly complex as questions lead to uncovered murders that relate to the case. The deeper Archer gets, and the more people he talks to, the more connections are made until there's a veritable web of links for him to sort through. (At one point, I actually wondered if it were possible for everyone to be guilty, much like a famous mystery set on a train.)

This is a different kind of audiobook and one I'd like to see more of: a full, unabridged reading of The Zebra-Striped Hearse performed by a cast of forty actors, with about a dozen of those tackling multiple roles. Some names may be familiar: Ed Asner plays Colonel Blackwell, with Kathryn Harrold as his wife Isobel, Jennifer Tilly as Harriet, and Joe Pantoliano as Burke Damis.

Prolific character actor Harris Yulin directs and carries the main role of Lew Archer. Yulin grounds the production with his solid portrayal, always in the foreground, but never getting in the way of his supporting actors. Other than Yulin, Asner and Harrold shine the brightest, though Tilly's turn is surprisingly earthy. Pantoliano, unfortunately, is given little to do — even "understated" would be an understatement here.

The whole venture is underscored by a piano- and trumpet-based soft jazz score that lends the perfect "lonely gumshoe" feel typical of the films of the genre. And film is the word of the day, because unlike single-reader audios, The Zebra-Striped Hearse is really a movie for the mind — it combines the best parts of unabridged narration and old-time radio. What a terrific way to be introduced to such a legendary series; I only hope the print versions can match up.

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