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 Audible.com), 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

Aural Noir Review of Drive by James Sallis

Aural Noir: Review

Blackstone Audio - Drive by James SallisDrive
By James Sallis; Read by Paul Michael Garcia
Audible Download – 3 Hours 26 Minutes [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Blackstone Audio
Published: 2007
Provider: Audible.com
Themes: / Crime / Noir / Los Angeles / Hollywood / Arizona /

“Much later, as he sat with his back against an inside wall of a Motel 6 just north of Phoenix, watching the pool of blood lap toward him, Driver would wonder whether he had made a terrible mistake. Later still, of course, there’d be no doubt. But for now Driver is, as they say, in the moment. And the moment includes this blood lapping toward him, the pressure of dawn’s late light at windows and door, traffic sounds from the interstate nearby, the sound of someone weeping in the next room…”

Drive starts with an important dedication. “To Donald Westlake, Ed McBain and Larry Block.” If an author is going to choose any three modern crime writers as inspiration for a book they could pick no better three than these dudes. Drive starts off with an opening sentence that could have been written by Richard Stark (a pen-name of Donald Westlake), proceeds to punch-out clean and clinical prose like McBain’s 87th Precinct novels and punches the story along like Lawrence Block at his best. Drive stars “Driver”, a nameless Hollywood stunt driver by day and a criminal getaway driver by night. We get how he started in the business of stunt-driving, a few scenes of him pulling off those incredible feats of automotive control, and how he got involved in the punishing business of criminal getaway driving. It’s fast, but it ain’t furious, it’s more of a simmering sizzle.

Blackstone narrator Paul Michael Garcia, who I last heard as the reader of Starman Jones, has a young voice – I knew I’d enjoy his reading of something in this genre. Garcia’s narration made it an incredibly solid listen. What’ll keep it from being a classic of the niche is that same anonymity of the protagonist. I enjoyed the ride with the guy, the “driver”, he has an incredible story to tell, but it was like I got hypnotized by the road somehow – I got to the end, refreshed and exhilarated but not particularly aware of what route we took. Perhaps this makes Drive the ideal summertime, top down, high-gear audiobook? It’s a novella so it’s short and you’ll zip through it practically before the commute is over. I think its worth giving a try.

Posted by Jesse Willis

The SFFaudio Podcast #006

Podcast

The SFFaudio PodcastThe SFFaudio Podcast #006 is here. Six is the loneliest number (after 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5) dontchanknow. In this our 6th, and sixth loneliest, show we’re asking lonely questions like: ‘If you had to choose a universe without either Ray Bradbury or Neil Gaiman, which would you pick?’ And ‘Which is the worst audiobook recording ever made?’ Pod-in to find out the answers to these and many more exciting questions that nobody asked us.

Topics discussed include:

StarShipSofa’s Aural Delights
, Paul Campbell, Michael Marshall Smith, The Seventeenth Kind, Estalvin’s Legacy, Rebels Of The Red Planet, Charles L. Fontenay, The 2nd SFFaudio Challenge, Parallel Worlds, The Graveyard Book, Neil Gaiman, The Jungle Book, American Gods, The Fix Online, Audiobook Fix, author read audiobooks, Harlan Ellison, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Stephen King, Robert J. Sawyer, James Patrick Kelly, Good Omens, Terry Pratchett, Neverwhere, Gary Bakewell, if you had to pick…, Stardust, Douglas Adams, Roger Zelazny, The Long Dark Tea Time Of The Soul, radio drama, BBC Radio 4, BBC iplayer, Artemis Fowl, Eoin Colfer, The Supernaturalist, The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy [the Ivory Coast edition], The Spanish Prisoner, Strange Horizons, Shaun Farrell, From iTunes to the Bookshelves: The First Wave of Podcast Novelists, Podiobooks.com, Nathan Lowell, Quarter Share, Evo Terra, Pavlovian experience, Ed McBain, Donald E. Westlake, NPR, Driveway Moments,

Posted by Jesse Willis

The SFFaudio Podcast #003

Podcast

The SFFaudio PodcastGenerally, this is our third podcast. Furthermore, it is a podcast of deep functionality. It’s universal really. Long story short, we talked about stuff. Join us in our secret society [book readers] where I (Jesse) say things like: Dune shot Science Fiction in the head.” and “Why I don’t like Science Fiction movies anymore.” and “You don’t name a king Augustus.” and “I hope the Earth explodes.”

In other words, the podcast’s length is commensurate with a function of your desire to listen to it.

Topics discussed include:

Crazy Dog Audio Theatre, The Zombies Of Dr. Krell, Roger Gregg, The Sonic Society, Radio Drama Revival, Whipping Star, Frank Herbert, Tantor Media, Dune, The Road To Dune, Children Of Dune, Brian Herbert, Kevin J. Anderson, MP3 to iPod Audiobook Converter, iTunes 8.0, zombies, StarShipSofa, SFSignal.com, Ian McDonald, The River Of Gods, Lawrence Block, Donald E. Westlake, Stephen King, John Scalzi, Old Man’s War, Anathem, Neal Stephenson, Snow Crash, BBC Audiobooks America, Hard Case Crime, Ed McBain, The Lies Of Locke Lamora, Scott Lynch, Dragon Page: Cover To Cover, Roger Zelazny, Locus, The Dead Man’s Brother, Robert McGinnis, Glen Orbik, Behind The Black Mask: Mystery Writers Revealed, Christa Faust, Money Shot, public libraries, secret societies, Podiobooks.com, Evo Terra, The Book Of The New Sun, Gene Wolfe, Grifter’s Game, Random House Audio, The Colorado Kid, Aural Noir, Sunshine, 28 Days Later, I, Robot, I Am Legend, 2001: A Space Odyssey, 2010: The Year We Make Contact, Fortress Draconis (a book with a king named Augustus), Robert Capa, John Searle, Brian Cox (physicist), IMDB.com

Posted by Jesse Willis