I’ve had a mixed experienced with audio books so far this year; the first one I finished I loved at first and was bored with by the end. I’m in the middle of my second one now and can’t wait to hear more.
I was looking forward to the first one, Jedediah Berry’s The Manual of Detection, having heard excellent things about it. And it might have worked better if I read it rather than listened to it. I’m still not sure which type of book works best on audio; while I’ve enjoyed listening to mystery and detective fiction in the past, in the last six months or so a couple of examples haven’t worked well for me, and I’m beginning to wonder whether the genre is tricky to listen to. The Manual of Detection didn’t work well and Agatha Christie didn’t either, while Maisie Dobbs worked great, as did P.D. James. I’m thinking that perhaps the more plot-driven books are harder to listen to, while the slower-paced ones that focus a lot on character and setting work better.
I started off enjoying The Manual of Detection. It’s opening is dark and atmospheric, with a strange, noirish mood to it. It’s set in an unknown city where it’s always raining, and the main character, Charles Unwin, rides to work on a bicycle complete with an umbrella to keep him dry. He’s a clerk in a large detective agency, and he’s very happy with his job processing the reports of a detective he’s never met Travis Sivart. The detective agency is a cold, mechanistic place where people follow strict rules and focus only on their own specialized tasks, nothing else. We learn nothing about any private life Charles Unwin might have; he’s basically a cipher, and he’s perfectly happy to stay that way. When he finds himself unexpectedly promoted to the rank of detective, the only thing he wants is his old job and his old peaceful life back.
All that was excellent; I loved the mood and the tone of the book. But then as Unwin tries to find Sivart in order to return everything to normal, the plot gets odder and odder, more and more fantastical, and I started to lose interest. I’m not quite sure whether it was the plot that didn’t work for me, the fantastical element, or the fact that I was listening to it, but by the end, I was only half paying attention. It was a disappointment.
Now I’m listening to Curtis Sittenfeld’s novel American Wife, and I’m mesmerized. It’s a loose, fictionalized retelling of the life of Laura Bush, and I’m loving its slow, thoughtful pace and tone. The main character is named Alice, and she’s intriguing, in an odd, dull sort of way — she’s careful, quiet, bookish, and independent, not that exciting of a main character, and yet awful things happen to her and soon enough she will become a really well-known and important person (I haven’t gotten to that part yet). It’s fascinating to watch her respond to everything life throws at her.
So, perhaps I need to give up listening to plot-driven mysteries and focus on slow-paced character-driven novels instead?