Older titles by well-known authors are usually less expensive to release on audio than pricey bestsellers. Lucky for audiophiles, as these titles often include delightful early novels long since out of print.
Audio Editions has published an extensive list of unabridged audio books under the Mystery Masters series that includes novels by Donald E. Westlake, Agatha Christie, Dick Francis, Rex Stout and Ellis Peters. A recent release is "The Daughter of Time," a digitally remastered version of Josephine Tey's riveting, intellectual mystery. (Four cassettes; 5 hours and 20 minutes; $24.95; read by Derek Jacobi.)
The Mystery Writers of America ranked this No. 4 on its list of the 100 best mysteries ever written. Originally published in 1951, it is a historical novel of sorts, as it attempts to unravel a murder from 500 years earlier. Scotland Yard's Inspector Grant is confined to a hospital bed with a broken leg and wounded hip. With little to occupy his mind in the pre-television age, he becomes engrossed with a portrait of Richard III, the supposedly evil English monarch who murdered his two young nephews to keep them from the crown.
Grant is not so sure.
Using historical text, conjecture and hearsay, he pieces together a different scenario than the one most generally accepted regarding Richard Plantagenet and the princes in the Tower.
Controversial and challenging, this moves along very quickly for a story that has almost no action and takes place in one room. Jacobi is an exciting reader well matched to the material. He creates a different voice for each character. Class, gender, regional accents and levels of intelligence are heard in his performance.
Production values, unfortunately, are not what they could be. Jacobi is one of those actors who makes noises with his mouth, so we can sometimes hear him swallowing. Ambient noise is too readily heard when chapters end, and they often end too abruptly. While the company deserves praise for releasing high-quality mysteries onto audio, one wishes the technical values matched the material.
Historical England is the setting for a series new to audio by Fiona Buckley. "To Shield the Queen" is the first of her three novels set at the court of Elizabeth I, to be published by Blackstone Audiobooks. All will be released unabridged and read by Nadia May. (Seven cassettes; 10 hours and 30 minutes; $11.95 to rent, $49.95 to buy. For information, call  729-2665.)
Though reminiscent of Ellis Peters' "Brother Cadfael" novels, this takes a feminized view of the Middle Ages. Fashion, sex and the distribution of power figure into a story told from the vantage point of Mistress Ursula Blanchard, a gentlewoman with a clever wit.
Widowed with a young daughter and limited means, Blanchard becomes a lady-in-waiting to the young Protestant queen. The queen is linked romantically to nobleman Robert Dudley, whose ailing wife dies under mysterious circumstances. Blanchard, who has been sent to tend to the dying woman, is soon embroiled in uncovering the details of her death. May is a terrific reader whose performance encompasses station, geographical roots and gender. She lowers her voice for men and suggests breeding, or lack thereof, through inflection and accent. She has a genteel and patrician manner that is well matched to Blanchard, a woman of noble station. May approaches the material with high energy and a vocal presence that is commanding without being shrill. The quality of the tapes, however, is not stupendous. Sound occasionally bleeds through, and ambient noise is too readily apparent.
If you prefer a more modern whodunit, listen to Robert B. Parker's latest Spenser mystery, "Hugger Mugger." (Bantam Doubleday Dell Audio; unabridged fiction; four cassettes; 6 hours and 30 minutes; $29.95; read by Joe Mantegna.) Someone is taking potshots at the racehorses owned by Southern gentleman Walter Clive. Clive so fears for the health of his million-dollar filly, Hugger Mugger, that he heads north to seek help from Boston-based Spenser. The detective has many places to turn for clues, as Clive's daughters are not merely dysfunctional, but also strange.
Their spouses are even weirder. The horse breeder has a hippie ex-wife, a savvy mistress and a lawyer just this side of shady. While none of Parker's later Spenser books compare with those of his early days, this moves along at a fast and entertaining clip. However, Spenser's sidekick, Hawk, is vacationing in France, and his presence is sorely missed.
Actor Mantegna expertly delivers Spenser's sarcastic humor and grounded confidence. However, he makes no attempt at a Boston accent, and his Georgia accent is not strong, nor is it constant.
Rochelle O'Gorman reviews audio books every other week. Next week: Dick Lochte on mystery books.