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SUNDAY BRUNCH | BOOKSHELF

Audio Books

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

It is being touted as her first novel in 20 years. In fact, Agatha Christie's "Black Coffee" has been around since 1930 as a three-act play. Charles Osborne, author of "The Life and Crimes of Agatha Christie," was given permission by her estate to adapt the play. Essentially, he worked the stage directions into the body of the text, and though his style is a tad static on the printed page, it works just fine on audio. (Soundelux, unabridged fiction; four cassettes, six hours; $22.95; read by Alexandra Thomas.)

Set in an English country house with a cast of eccentrics, "Black Coffee" revolves around a stolen secret formula critical to England's military defense. The only major difference between this and other Hercule Poirot mysteries is the lack of a narrative by Captain Hastings, Poirot's debonair sidekick (who appears here, but only as a lackey and occasional sounding board). The main reason to hear this audio is the nimble vocal talents of narrator Thomas, a spirited woman who comes up with so many voices that she creates an entire cast of players, each colored with a marked vocal mannerism, be it elderly, youthful, capricious or uptight. She easily slides into a Poirot's Belgian accent, replete with that superior, reserved tone we associate with Christie's fastidious detective. Thomas also manages several British accents. Most are variations on the upper crust, yet each character clearly stands alone. Rousing classical music begins and ends each cassette, and concise biographies of Christie and Osborne are included in a short afterword.

*

The "Sounds Like Murder" series (Random House AudioBooks, six stories on six cassettes, various authors and narrators) is an excellent collection of whodunits written especially for audio and just perfect for a commute. A random sampling of three titles produced nothing but auditory pleasure.

Peter Lovesey's British mystery "The Sedgemoor Strangler" is a brisk tale of barmaids and bad men, kindly millionaires and sexual repression. In "The Poster Boy" by Stephen Solomita, a picture-perfect police detective finds himself on the wrong side of an interrogation table. In Christopher Newman's "Clean American Fun," the Religious Right and an eccentric British billionaire tangle over property in Branson, Mo. The other writers in the series are Ed McBain, June Thomson and S.J. Rozan.

These two-hour tapes are reasonably priced at $12.95 each and the stories are complex enough to maintain your interest. They are all so different in style and execution that you can pick up a few without fear of repetition. The narrators may not be household names, but each introduces a distinctive accent and is adept at interjecting texture and tension. The only disappointing aspect of this series is that we won't be hearing about any new volumes until spring.

*

A subtext of the mystery genre is "Florida noir," wild Southern tales filled with audacious characters and brazen plots. Laurence Shames ("Virgin Heat," "Florida Straits") contributes to this distinctive literary style, but his "Mangrove Squeeze" plays by rules too safe, and literary constructs too cute, for us to take it seriously. (Recorded Books, unabridged fiction; seven cassettes; 10 hours; $16.50 to rent, $58 to buy; read by Richard Ferrone. Information: [800] 638-1304.)

This just isn't what we expect -- a wildly outlandish tale like those invented by other offbeat Florida writers such as Carl Hiaasen or, on previous excursions, by Shames himself. Instead, we get the kernel of a decent mystery that is never quite developed. Though diverting and mildly entertaining, it's lightweight and lacking in madcap elements. When the advertising rep at a weekly newspaper in Key West decides to look into the Russian Mafia, she finds herself marked for murder. When the police don't believe her story, she turns to a retired New York mobster, a senile inventor and an overworked hotel owner for help. Some of the characters are fleshed out and humorous, but others, such as a friendly and philosophical homeless duo, need more of a back-story for credibility. And the listener need not worry that anything truly horrible will happen: The crooks are more bumbling than ferocious.

One plus is Ferrone, a skillful reader with a peppy presentation and a wide performance range.

*

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

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