In a random sampling of two titles from a publisher that was new to me, I discovered a young company experiencing some growing pains, but worthy of a listen. The Americana Audiobooks catalog offers a range of genres in attractive, hard-plastic packaging.
Unfortunately, I was disappointed with the first title I sampled, "Motor City Blue," by Loren D. Estleman. (Americana Audiobooks; abridged fiction; four cassettes; six hours; $25; read by Alan Zimmerman. Available in bookstores and by calling  883-8203.)
The novel, first published in 1980, features detective Amos Walker, a fictional private eye well-known to mystery buffs for his love of old movies and hard-boiled ways. Estleman is a masterful writer, and he carves out a solid story involving the missing ward of a Detroit gangster. Walker must search through the city's pornographic underground to find a woman who may not be in trouble, but is trouble.
The abridgment is handled well--the story never misses a beat. Unfortunately, Zimmerman is a mediocre narrator who occasionally detracts from the story. He reads too quickly, and his delivery borders on monotone. When he attempts characterizations, such as a Bogart imitation, it's almost painful.
The producer took a chance by using a mechanized voice for the mobster, who had a tracheotomy and speaks through a machine. It almost works but is a bit over the top. The peppy, canned music that begins and ends each tape really has to go; it is grating and sometimes too loud.
The second title, "Doc in the Box," by Elaine Viets, works much better. Like Estleman's mystery, the material is worth hearing, but this time the production values and narration are of a higher quality. (Americana Audiobooks; abridged fiction; four cassettes; five hours and 30 minutes; $25; read by the author. Available in bookstores and by calling  883-8203.)
The story features Francesca Vierling, a columnist for the St. Louis City Gazette. While the fictional reporter-detective is nothing new, Vierling has an earthiness and brusque humor that is refreshing.
Vierling's favorite editor has breast cancer. While accompanying her to the hospital for chemotherapy, the reporter finds herself embroiled in a murder plot when almost everyone in the clinic, except her editor, is gunned down.
This rampage is just the beginning for a serial killer targeting rude and incompetent doctors. Though the reporter does not disagree that the doctors are self-serving and often inept, she's sure they don't deserve a death sentence and sets out to identify the killer.
The author has clear diction and a voice that is interesting for being just different enough to give her some personality. She sounds feminine, but her voice is also moderately deep. She comes across as a little tough, and when the need arises, a little funny.
Viets alters her voice somewhat for different characters. Her editor has a gruff voice and blunt manner that differentiates her from Vierling. She also deepens her voice for a male stripper who figures into a comic subplot. You can tell she is a woman pretending to be a male, but it is clear that the character is masculine.
The canned trademark Americana music is heard less often, and the lazy jazz riffs separating the sections are used to good effect. The bottom line is that the company is producing decent fiction, abridging it well, selling it at decent prices and in high-quality packaging. It needs to work on the inconsistent production values.
If you are looking for British mysteries steeped in psychological suspense, you may want to hear Ruth Rendell's new collection of short stories, "Piranha to Scurfy." (Books on Tape; unabridged fiction; six cassettes; nine hours; $29.95; read by Donada Peters.)
The title story refers to the range of subjects in Volume 8 of the Encyclopedia Britannica. It is the lengthiest and most intriguing entry in a collection in which a long story and a novella bookend seven shorter pieces.
At its center is a lonely and obsessive bibliophile who spends his days remonstrating authors in nasty letters for the mistakes he has unearthed in their books. All this changes when he reads a novel that appears to mirror the guilty secret shadowing his life.
The seven shorter stories are entertaining but do not all live up to the author's reputation. Rendell can be insightful or witty and even surprising, but a couple of the stories are merely adequate. "The Wink," a tale of revenge, offers little satisfaction, and "The Scarf," which details the lives of those who have owned the garment, is pedestrian at best.
But the final entry, "High Mysterious Union," is an eerie, erotic novella that calls to mind Shirley Jackson's short stories and quite justifies the audio book's price.
Recorded book veteran Donada Peters captures the various moods of the stories, from irony and wit to terror and isolation. She alters her attitude rather than her voice for each character, though she does age her voice quite believably when needed. Her pacing and diction, as always, are superb, making her a pleasing, reassuring presence throughout the audio.
Though Books on Tape includes everything found in the printed version, from the introduction to a short bio about the author, it does not list the title of each story on either the box or the cassettes. So if you missed a story's title, you're out of luck.
Rochelle O'Gorman reviews audio books every other week. Next week: Dick Lochte on mystery books.