Aural Noir review of Downtown by Ed McBain

Aural Noir: Review

Here’s the first review by a long time internet ally, fellow proponent of all things Donald E. Westlake, and soon a guest on The SFFaudio Podcast.

BOOKS ON TAPE - Downtown by Ed McBainSFFaudio EssentialDowntown
By Ed McBain; Read by Michael Prichard
8 Cassettes – Approx. 8 Hours [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Books On Tape
Published: 1992
ISBN: 0736621423
Themes: / Crime / New York / Humor / Murder / Mistaken Identity /

Michael Barnes is in New York on business. He has a couple of hours to kill before his plane leaves. It’s Christmas Eve. When he stops for a drink, he finds a young woman very attracted to him. He swells with masculine pride. But soon Michael’s wallet and then his rented car are stolen – only to resurface on the other side of town in unexpected company – a corpse!

There’s nothing quite like picking up a book (metaphorically) you’ve never heard of and know nothing about and discovering that you’ve stumbled across a classic. This was my experience with Ed McBain’s Downtown.

A classic? Strong words, there, Trent. But I mean it. I just recently read Donald Westlake’s The Hot Rock, which I loved and which is considered the classic comic crime novel. Downtown is nearly if not just as good (although very different).

Our protagonist is Michael Barnes, an orange-grower from Florida who is about to fly out of New York City on Christmas Eve, after a meeting with his advertising agency, when he gets hustled by a gorgeous woman and her fake police detective accomplice in an airport bar. His drivers license, credit cards, and money now gone, he goes downtown to report the crime to the police, getting his rental car stolen along the way. From there, he ends up on the lam accused of murder, running hither and thither meeting all sorts of strange people and ending up in all sorts of strange situations as he tries to figure out just what the hell is going on.

Tempering this craziness is the fact that Michael Barnes has some serious emotional baggage–he’s a cuckold and bitter about it, has issues with his mother, and was scarred by his combat experience in Vietnam (although he’s not an offensive psycho stereotype, thank God). These emotional scars are played upon masterfully by McBain, for dark humor or for grounding moments of pathos as appropriate, and they give Downtown a humanity that makes the whole farce unexpectedly powerful.

I don’t know why Downtown isn’t better known. Maybe Ed McBain just pumped out so many books that lots of his stuff falls through the cracks while readers get stuck trying to read the 87th Precinct and Matthew Hope novels in order. Maybe it’s because nobody made a movie out of it (although see below). Maybe, and this is a strong possibility, the style of humor doesn’t appeal to a broad enough audience.

Whatever the reason, Downtown deserves much better than obscurity. It’s clever, witty, touching, and terrific.

That’s the book review portion of this write-up, but I don’t want to end without bringing up something that struck me while listening to Downtown.

With a movie director figuring prominently in the plot, Downtown is loaded with film references (including to Evan Hunter/Ed McBain films The Birds and Fuzz). A movie not mentioned is one that Downtown bears a great resemblance to–Martin Scorsese’s After Hours.

If you’re not familiar with this film (too few people are), After Hours is a comedy about a fairly-average Joe who meets all sorts of strange people and ends up in all sorts of strange situations in late-night Manhattan. Oh, and he also gets accused of a crime he didn’t commit.

The setting and several story elements in After Hours are very similar to Downtown. The style of humor (dry with repetitive absurdity) also bears a marked resemblance. Both even feature prominent references to The Wizard Of Oz.

Coincidence? Homage? Rip-off (I doubt that)? Subconscious borrowing? We’ll likely never know. But if you liked After Hours, you’ll probably like Downtown, and vice versa. And if you’re not familiar with either, do yourself a favor and check them both out.

I listened to the 1992 edition of Downtown from Books on Tape, read by Michael Prichard. When I started the book, I thought his reading was stiff, but I quickly recognized that he had done a great job capturing the somewhat-uptight, neurotic lead character. Mr. Prichard is also quite skilled in creating voices to distinguish the many other characters without resorting to ridiculous exaggerations or outrageous accents (in a book with a lot of ethnic characters, no less). Downtown is written in a highly rhythmic style, with lots of short sentences and lots of repetition. Prichard grasps this and captures the novel’s rhythms superbly. It’s a really good reading.

There are two other editions of Downtown (both available at, an abridged version from Phoenix Books read by Stephen Macht and an unabridged version from Brilliance Audio read by David Regal. For the sake of comparison, I listened to the available samples of both.

Downtown is a lousy candidate for abridgment, but even if it wasn’t I wouldn’t care for Stephen Macht’s reading, which is overdramatic.

David Regal’s reading is considerably better. His interpretation is quite different from Michael Prichard’s, making Michael Barnes sound like a traveling salesman. I would have to hear more to have a real sense of how well this works but I heard enough that I think I can judge it a solid effort. Go with the Books on Tape edition if you can find it, but if you can’t, Regal’s version will likely do as a substitute.

Posted by Trent Reynolds

New audiobook column: @ The Fix

SFFaudio News

The Fix Online: Short Fiction ReviewScott Danielson has been writing about audiobooks for donkey’s years. Starting back in November he got one more outlet for his itchy fingers. His column in a new online Science Fiction and Fantasy review magazine called The Fix is cleverly titled “Audiobook Fix“. December is the second month of publication – in the latest column (December) you’ll find he covers the Writers of the Future, Vol. 23 audiobook and A War of Gifts by Orson Scott Card. Find it here!

Posted by Jesse Willis

Review of A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess

SFFaudio Review

A Clockwork Orange
By Anthony Burgess; Read by Tom Hollander
7 CDs – 8 hours [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Caedmon /Harper Audio
Published: 2007
ISBN: 9780061170621
Themes: / Science Fiction / Dystopia / Youth Violence / Mind Control /

Anthony Burgess’ classic novel A Clockwork Orange is likely familiar to most science fiction fans through Stanley Kubrick’s film version. But the book is itself arguably the best post-Orwell dystopia novel. This new audiobook version, the first unabridged commercial release, captures every enthralling and disturbing word.

Set in a not too distant future the story centers around an anti-hero Alex, a fifteen year old juvenile delinquent, and his rather violent life. Alex and his three droogs (friends) are a small gang, one of many that preys upon this future society. These youth gangs are a very well developed subculture with their own slang called “Nadsat.” Alex enjoys his life of cruelty and commits several horrendous crimes early in the story (this is not for the squeamish). Eventually Alex becomes the subject of a government mind-control experiment which raises many questions about the value of free will.

Although the story fails to predict technological advances (word processors, CDs, etc) other parts, such as the “Ludovico Technique” seem even more plausible now. It is a fascinating world due in part to the wonderfully imagined Nadsat. Here the audiobook really impresses. Tom Hollander’s thoroughly professional reading of the story brings out the richness of the language and the setting. His performance helps make this one of the best single narrator audiobooks that I have ever heard!

It is an amazing story that both fascinates and repels. One of the best novels of the twentieth century has been given a worthy audiobook translation. It is not quite perfect for those new to the story, however. Anyone who has not read the full version, including the controversial twenty-first chapter, is advised to skip the first two tracks of the audiobook until after they have finished the story. These tracks are the spoiler filled introduction. I am very ambivalent about the inclusion of the twenty-first chapter. I feel the same about this chapter as most Alien/Aliens fans feel about Alien 3, but the inclusion does allow listeners to make up their own minds. Overall this is an A+ production of a great story. And I’m proud to have proved that it is possible to review A Clockwork Orange without overusing Nadsat to prove one’s coolness, O my little brothers.

Posted by Dave Tackett

Librivox Audiobook: The Enchanted Castle by E. Nesbit

SFFaudio OnlineAudio

Edith Nesbit’s classic fantasy novel The Enchanted Castle is a delightful children’s story, but one that is likely to have limited appeal for older listeners. Fantasy scholars, however, will find much of interest in it. Here is an author that C. S. Lewis listed as an influence and this is the story of a magic ring that, at first, seems merely an invisibility ring but turns out to be much more. Peter Eastman, the reader of this public domain audiobook, does a better than average job of handling the near impossible task of doing several different children’s voices.

LibriVox Fantasy Audiobook - The Enchanted Castle by E. NesbitThe Enchanted Castle
By E. Nesbit; Read by Peter Eastman
12 zipped MP3s or podcast – 7 Hours 14 Minutes [UNABRIDGED]
Published: September 27, 2007
“Three children, forced to remain at school during the holidays, go in search of adventure. What they find is a magic castle straight out of a fairy tale, complete with an enchanted princess at the center of a maze. Or is it? The castle turns out to be just a country estate, and the princess is only the housekeeper’s niece, playing at dressing up. But the magic ring she shows them proves — to her surprise and horror — to really be magic. Soon they are caught in an adventure where statues come alive, lost lovers are reunited, and wishes can be granted — but always for a price. (Summary by Peter Eastman)”

You can get the entire novel in podcast form, via this handy url:

Recent Arrivals – Rucker, Bujold, Card, and Moning

Science Fiction Audiobook Recent Arrivals
A good week at SFFaudio!

Science Fiction Audiobook - Space Boy by Orson Scott CardSpace Boy
By Orson Scott Card; Read by Stefan Rudnicki
2 CDs -2 Hours [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Blackstone Audio
Published: 2007
ISBN: 9781433207648

Is it space travel that children dream of, or merely visiting other worlds? Todd had always set his heart on being an astronaut, but when he meets an alien and travels to another world, he doesn’t use a spaceship; he just hangs out in his own back yard.

In Space Boy, Orson Scott Card, author of Ender’s Game, takes listeners into a strange and wonderful future, where people from another world regularly visit Earth, usually without being noticed. And when humans travel to their world, they find themselves dangerously weak and powerless, until Todd finds a way to set both worlds to rights.

By turns funny and painful, Space Boy is Card at his best, exploring human nature for the entertainment of readers young and old.

Science Fiction Audiobook - A Civil Campaign by Lois McMaster BujoldA Civil Campaign
By Lois McMaster Bujold; Read by Grover Gardner
16 CDs – 19 Hours [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Blackstone Audio
Published: 2007
ISBN: 9781433207099

Lord Miles Vorkosigan has a problem that all his new power can’t solve: unrequited love for the beautiful Vor widow Ekaterin Vorsoisson. Ekaterin is violently allergic to marriage as a result of her first exposure. But as Miles learned from his late career in galactic covert ops, if a frontal assault won’t do, go to subterfuge.

Miles has a cunning plan, which, of course, has to be worked out in between District succession scandals and plans for the Emperor’s wedding. And if no battle plan survives first contact with the enemy, just imagine what all Miles’s friends and relatives can do to his romantic strategy.

Science Fiction Audiobook - Master of Space and Time by Rudy RuckerMaster of Space and Time
By Rudy V. B. Rucker; Read by Scott Grunden
5 CDs – 6 Hours [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Blackstone Audio
Published: 2007
ISBN: 9781433207709

Madcap inventor Harry Gerber is hopeless when it comes to surviving in the real world. So he uses his genius to twist the laws of science and create his own tailor-made universe. Assisted by his straight-men co-conspirators, Joe Fletcher and the comely Sondra Tupperware, and powered by gluons—the stuff that holds our very atoms together—Gerber creates a blunzer, enabling him to change the very nature of reality.

From a mirror-image world where sluglike parasites make slaves of humanity, to trees and bushes that grow fries and pork chops, to a rain of fish, Master of Space and Time takes listeners on the ultimate joyride. But once the gluons at the core of Harry’s creation run out, disaster looms for Harry and his friends.

High physics and high jinks combine for a wild voyage that blurs the line between science and magic.

Paranorman Romance Audiobook - Bloodfever by Karen Marie MoningBlood Fever
By Karen Marie Moning; Read by Joyce Bean
8 CDs – 9 Hours [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Brilliance Audio
Published: 2007
ISBN: 9781423341932

MacKayla Lane’s ordinary life underwent a complete makeover when she landed on Ireland’s shores and was plunged into a world of deadly sorcery and ancient secrets.

In her fight to stay alive, Mac must find the Sinsar Dubh – a million-year-old book of the blackest magic imaginable, which holds the key to power over both the world of the Fae and of Man. Pursued by Fae assassins, surrounded by mysterious figures she knows she cannot trust, Mac finds herself torn between two deadly and irresistible men: V’lane, the insatiable Fae who can turn sensual arousal into an obsession for any woman, and the ever-inscrutable Jericho Barrons, a man as alluring as he is mysterious.

For centuries the shadowy realm of the Fae has coexisted with that of humans. Now the walls between the two are coming down, and Mac is the only thing that stands between them….