Gerard Doyle’s narration of Mick Herron’s brilliant Slough House series is an admirable example of unity between voice and story. Made up of seven novels and three novellas — beginning with “Slow Horses”(Blackstone) and ending, for the moment, with “Slough House” (Recorded Books) — the series follows the deeds and misdeeds of a group of British MI5 losers and bunglers exiled to the feculent offices of Slough House and referred to contemptuously as the “slow horses.” The books — which are in production by Apple TV as a series starring Gary Oldman, Olivia Cooke, Kristin Scott Thomas, Jonathan Pryce and Jack Lowden — are an exceptionally witty indictment of self-serving politicians and over-mighty intelligence organizations. voice complements the series’ black comedy and undercurrent of suppressed anger. So imagine the listener’s dismay to find narrator Michael Healy taking up “Dead Lions” (Blackstone), the second installment, and proceeding through it in such a pedantic, finicky manner he might be quoting an end-user license agreement.Fortunately Doyle is summoned back from wherever he’d gone to and takes over from there.
Doyle’s wry demeanor is also, to me, inseparable from Adrian McKinty’s splendid cycle of novels set in Northern Ireland of the bleak 1980s. At their center is Detective Inspector Sean Duffy, a Catholic in the chiefly Protestant Royal Ulster Constabulary — despised by most of his fellow officers and hated by the Provisional IRA as a collaborator. The anomaly of his situation gives him rise to persecution, and, I am happy to say, dry humor which Doyle delivers with droll understatement. Duffy spends six novels — from “The Cold, Cold Ground” (Blackstone) to “Police at the Station and They Don’t Look Friendly” (Recorded Books) — checking his car’s undercarriage for bombs and investigating every sort of real-life badness from drug dealing at Belfast’s DeLorean Motor Company’s plant to an assassination attempt on Margaret Thatcher.
Joe Ide’s rambunctious sequence of novels covering the complicated life and derring-do of brainiac, Isaiah Quintabe, fittingly called IQ, has reached five installations. At home in East Long Beach Los Angeles, IQ is a generous neighborhood fixer and sleuth, a tormented soul who can’t get out of bed without getting snarled in a mesh of proliferating plots. A wild set of friends and foes reappear throughout the books, some entertainingly gabby, others grotesquely menacing. The series demands exceptional vocal agility in switching among characters, often in fast-paced verbal jousting and trash talk. Sullivan Jones narrates the first installments: “IQ,” “Righteous,” and “Wrecked” (all Hachette) in a low, commanding voice for the general narrative, while in passages of dialogue, he moves easily from speaker to speaker, giving most of them an appropriate manner and voice.
By the end of the third installment Jones’s narration had become fused with the series in this listener’s mind — only to find the next volume, “Hi Five” (Little, Brown), handled by an amped-up Zeno Robinson. I had to bail out of this one as it involves a character with multiple personalities — a plot device as tiresome to me as the good-and-evil-identical-twins routine. I felt sorry for Robinson having to get through it. But in listening to the next, “Smoke” (Mulholland), I discovered what a great interpreter of the series he is. His voice from him has less weight than Jones’s, but it is lithe and extraordinarily versatile, and possesses a real flair for the comic touches that leaven Ide’s series.
Barbara Pym’s novels do not make up a series, but the stories share an ambiance. The central characters tend to be middle-aged spinsters or taken-for-granted wives who occupy themselves with being useful or annoying to others. Indeed, Pym is master of the human comedy writ small, and her novels by her demand a narrator attuned to that spirit, a quiet mood of restrained, subtle irony. Six of her novels by her are available as audiobooks, with “Excellent Women” read in the proper spirit of genteel resignation by Jayne Entwistle (Tantor). Then calamity. The other five novels are narrated by Mary Sarah who pollutes them with a travesty of an English accent in a voice that is whispery, dainty and twee. It’s a rendering so gooey, so out of keeping with Pym’s sensibility of her, that, as audiobooks, these works are lost.
Katherine A. Powers reviews audiobooks every month for The Washington Post.