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Humor Spices Up Tribulations of a Caterer in Tasty Mystery

November 11, 1998|ROCHELLE O'GORMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Diane Mott Davidson's latest mystery, "Prime Cut," is the audio equivalent of a chocolate souffle: light and airy, somewhat sweet and easy to digest. (Bantam Doubleday Dell Audio; abridged fiction; four cassettes; six hours; $25; read by Cherry Jones.)

Caterer Goldy Schulz, known to fans of Davidson's series, returns to Aspen Meadows, Colo., where all is not well. Soon after she stumbles upon the hideous corpse of a much-despised local contractor, her husband is suspended from the sheriff's department. A local caterer with a bad case of sour grapes sabotages her business, and her half-built kitchen is causing all manner of catering crises.

Don't expect much depth from this fast-moving audio, as the characters are defined in bold strokes, and shades of gray are not part of the landscape. However, Schulz is sassy and humorous, and very little has been lost in the abridgment.

Award-winning stage actress Cherry Jones has a slightly breathy voice that is youthful and vigorous, traits that suit this audio. Attitude and performance are at the heart of her narration, though she does change her voice slightly for different characters. However, Jones' performance is based primarily on conveying various emotions. These shifts are subtle, as this is not an audio propelled by the reader, but rather enhanced by her.

An added bonus is the inclusion of a cook booklet featuring 11 recipes mentioned in the story. Davidson always includes the culinary delights that her characters prepare, and the publisher wisely chose not to read them to us.

*

Just as the kitchen is an integral part of Davidson's frothy creation, the atmosphere and landscape of New Mexico are intrinsic to Michael McGarrity's realistic and gritty mystery. "Serpent Gate," his third novel in the Kevin Kerney series, is the diametrical opposite of Davidson's character-driven escapism. (Simon & Schuster Audio; abridged fiction; four cassettes; 4 hours and 30 minutes; $23; read by James Naughton.)

Earthy and evocative, it is enriched by McGarrity's detailed knowledge of police procedure. A former deputy sheriff for Santa Fe County, he understands the mind-set of small-town bullies and big-time hoods. That he can intelligently convey that knowledge is the listener's good fortune.

Kerney, deputy chief of the state police, is the only character who is completely fleshed out. Therefore, the loss of detail through abridgment does subtract needed personality traits from the good, the bad and the flawed. However, McGarrity hooks us at the onset with a vivid interview between Kerney and the schizophrenic witness to a patrolman's murder.

The action is then split between an art theft played out on an international scale and a more personal crime involving a much-warranted act of revenge.

Every character is assigned a vocal characteristic, some more successfully than others. When there are two people speaking, actor Naughton clearly changes his voice for each. He just does so more realistically for the male voices than the female. However, Naughton does a convincing job with the voice of an escaped mental patient. Speaking too quickly and sounding edgy, it is immediately clear the man is not all there.

*

The weak link in this mysterious trio is Tony Hillerman's latest audio, "The First Eagle." (Dove Audio; unabridged fiction; six cassettes; nine hours; $34.95; read by George Guidall. Also available abridged; four cassettes; six hours; $25; read by Guidall.)

Not Hillerman's finest effort, this middling tale of murder and misbehavior on Navajo tribal land is bogged down by scientific claptrap that stalls the action. Germ-carrying fleas and viruses don't grab our attention as strongly as Hillerman's descriptions of Native American rituals and customs.

The bubonic plague has reared its medieval head in the Southwest, bringing with it single-minded scientists who conduct experiments in field laboratories. Navajo tribal police Officer Jim Chee must deal with an obsessed researcher, the Federal Bureau of Ineptitude and his angry fiance when a policeman is killed and one of the scientists apparently scarpers.

The choice of Guidall as narrator is a puzzlement, as he is not well-suited to the material. Though he is one of the most talented narrators in the business, this is a true western that needed Native American flavor. Guidall's voice is impossibly deep and luscious, and his performance nuanced, but there are numerous Native American actors who could have injected this with distinction and authenticity. As this tale teeters dangerously close to mediocrity, it could have used that little vocal push to maintain our interest.

Rochelle O'Gorman reviews audio books every other week. Next week: Dick Lochte on mystery

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