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A Literary Thriller, Despite the Graphic Murder and Sex

April 14, 1999|ROCHELLE O'GORMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When a disturbing and schizophrenic postcard arrives from her half-sister in India, freelance crime journalist and sometime BBC producer Rosalind Bengal crosses half the world to help her. She believes her brother-in-law may have murdered his first wife and may be involved in the murders of four hijra, or eunuchs.

However, as our hard-drinking, sexual adventurer tries to uncover the truth, she finds herself in a fun house filled with false fronts and trapdoors. In search of a good story as well as family resolution, Scottish-Indian Bengal is torn between the East and the West, both inspired and maddened by an India where nothing is as it seems. In her gripping first novel, "Bombay Ice," Lisa Forbes bestows upon the listener clever wordplay, allegory, illusion, allusion, symbolism and very dry humor. Her efforts are occasionally bloated, but always ambitious and intriguing. (Blackstone Audiobooks; unabridged fiction; 11 cassettes; 16 hours, 30 minutes; $13.95 if rented, $76.95 if purchased; read by Susan O'Malley. For information, call [800] 729-2665.)

Forbes is influenced by Hollywood, Shakespeare, hard-boiled detective thrillers, pop culture and the weather. She writes of sexual politics and ritual murder, entropy and alchemy, forgery, forensic pathology, meteorological eruptions, and chaos theory. Even when she oversteps, she never bores.

Narrator O'Malley intrigues us in that her delivery is a bit flawed, yet she maintains our attention. She easily conveys Bengal's weary toughness and insightful intelligence. She is able to age her voice and adopts several subtle variations of a staccato Indian accent.

O'Malley moves the action along and conveys the tough reserve of the protagonist, but she lacks vigor and passion, like an actor who is technically superb but never feels the emotions.

While "Bombay Ice" graphically describes murder and sex, it is a well-written literary thriller. Horror is diffused with irony, and Forbes' descriptions are often poetic in nature.

*

As for Tami Hoag's thriller involving multiple murders, "Ashes to Ashes," I have but three words: shame, shame, shame. (Simon & Schuster Audio; abridged fiction; four cassettes; five hours; $25; read by Melissa Leo.)

A character called the Cremator is killing and immolating prostitutes in Minneapolis parks. The heat is turned up on the investigation when the daughter of a prominent family becomes one of the victims. Kate Conlan, a former FBI agent (of course) and now a victim / witness advocate, finds herself working on the case with a top FBI agent who is (of course) a former love interest.

This is a formulaic and cliche-riddled chiller. Hoag lifts ideas and characters from numerous movies and books, most notably Thomas Harris' "The Silence of the Lambs." We are forced to hear trite and badly written dialogue, such as when a teenager admits having spent time in the "devil's basement," and a bad guy calls himself "Evil's Angel." Just be thankful this is abridged.

What is most amazing is that the audio's producer found a narrator who was unable to rise above the material. Melissa Leo is amateurish, formulaic and as vulgar as the novel. She pauses in the wrong places, misuses emphasis and mispronounces words. She attempts, but fails, to differentiate characters with varied voices. For most of the audio, she simply grits her teeth and over-emotes. Subtlety is not her strong point.

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