Aside from some Thundercats and He-Man books I had as a kid that came with tapes to read along with and The Hobbit, I don’t have a lot of experience with audiobooks (or books on tape as we called them back when tapes were things people used). But when you’re looking at an over nine hour drive from New York to Toledo, you look for things to help pass the time. The in-laws have been using audiobooks on their trips down to visit us from New Hampshire and passed Robert B. Parker’s Widow’s Walk to us on a previous trip, so we gave it a listen on the trip out to Toledo for New Year’s and it really did help.
Before getting into the story itself, I want to say a few things about the idea of listening to a book being read by a person. It’s really an interesting and very specific form of entertainment isn’t it? Books are meant to be read and sometimes read aloud to others, but listening to an entire work read and acted out by another person was very interesting. The biggest difference is that, while this is a medium like television or movies that you absorb passively (instead of actively reading), you’re made aware of the architecture of how the story is put together. When you watch a movie or show, there was a script that the actors read and memorized but you’re not hearing all the stage action (RAISES THE GUN or TURNS TO HIS LEFT), but with an audiobook you are. The constant “he saids” got to be a little annoying in the process. I understand wanting to remain completely faithful to the original work, but maybe a few of those could be taken out, especially if the reader is using different voices for different characters like Joe Mantegna did for this one (more on that in a bit). It’s like when you see a boom mic in a movie or something along those lines that reminds you that you’re watching something fake and not reality. It kind of takes you out of the story. When you’re reading you gloss over them, but they get repetitive when listening. I’m guessing that certain authors have a style that works better for this kind of format than others do and I’m not sure if Parker’s fits quite as well.
The story of Widow’s Walk is a complicated one. I’ll get that out right away. It’s well put together as you might expect from a prolific writer like Parker, but you’ve really got to pay attention towards the end to get all the details. According to the Wikipedia page, this was his 29th outing with the character of Spenser, who I realized well into the first disc is the same guy from the Spenser For Hire TV show. Coming into things this late in the series, I worried that the missus and I might be a little lost when it came to some of the relationships, but neither of us had that problem. Parker did a good job of leaving enough clues so you didn’t have to wonder and probably didn’t get too bogged down with well worn territory for long time readers. This time around, Spenser’s working on a case that seems pretty open and shut. A husband is found shot dead in his locked home. His ditzy-verging-on-braindead wife was the only person in the house and she’s the main suspect, but claims to have just found him dead. Spenser is hired by the lawyer defending her to figure out exactly what’s going on. With the exception of a few sideplots involving his 25 year relationship with Susan, the story stays with Spenser as he tries to figure out exactly what’s going on with the case. As you might expect, he does and it turns out to be a very complicated endeavor, but not really in a bad way. You wouldn’t want to read hundreds of pages (or listen to several hours in this case) only to find out that it was a simple case of murder would you?
In addition to seeing, or rather hearing, the architecture of the story, I noticed that listening to an audiobook forces you to work at someone else’s pace to absorb the information which is very different than reading. I read pretty slow, but I listen pretty quickly. There’s no way I could read this book in 6 hours, but I’ve got no problem listening to it in that span. The only problem, if you even want to call it that, is that sometimes I missed things or maybe they weren’t stated very clearly or maybe I was looking for a street sign or bathroom stop while driving and got a bit distrated. In a book, I’d flip back to clarify, but in this case, I just let it ride out or asked the missus and she’d fill me in. My general idea when watching a movie or show is that I’ll catch back up eventually and rarely rewind.
Back to the story. In addition to the complicated plot and the constant “saids” (both of which are really only problems when hearing the work instead of reading it) the only problem I had was with the titular widow. She’s SUCH an annoying and stupid character that I never really cared if she got locked up or not. She didn’t seem smart enough to even help herself and wasn’t even remotely sympathetic so who cares? I guess you could say that it’s a test of the justice system and the people who work for it to see if they can still do a good job of trying to save someone who they might not care about, but that could have been done with a more despicable character to great effect, I think. Luckily, she wasn’t in it too much and the other characters are interesting enough to keep things moving along. The only other negative I want to note is that the book felt a little dated. We both were surprised that it was written in 2002 as it felt like more of an early 90s thing. I don’t remember anything specific that made me think that, but we talked about it and we both had the same feeling. Maybe it’s the lack of technology (not much mention of computers or cell phones) or the fact that it took so long for anyone to wonder if the dead banker might have been gay (we both guessed it as soon as someone mentioned that he spent a lot of time “mentoring” young men). Lastly, I want to talk about Mantegna as the reader. He apparently appeared in a few Spenser TV movies on A&E in the late 90s/early 00s, which explains the connection, though Widow’s Walk wasn’t one of the adapted stories. I found it interested that they got an iconically Italian New Yorker to play a Boston PI. He did an admirable job putting on different accents and voices for the various characters, but the missus and I definitely got a chuckle when he voiced a Latin maid, African American woman and gay man. He’s got such a distinctive voice that it’s hard to mask even when doing an accent. But, overall he did a great job which is why the “saids” got to be so noticeable and annoying because I already knew who was saying what.
Overall, I think I’m becoming a fan of audiobooks. For our trip home we bought Patricia Cornwell’s The Scarpetta Factor which was incredibly engrossing, but longer than the trip itself. We’ll hopefully finish it this weekend on our trip down to New Jersey, but if not, it might be time to kick it old school, rip the remaining disc to the computer and sit around the iPod speaker old time radio-style to finish. I’m not sure if I’d want to listen to another one of Parker’s books, though I’d be curious to read one and compare the experience.