Monday, April 25, 2016

John D MacDonald Audiobooks

The history of spoken word recordings goes back to the invention of recording itself, with Thomas Edison’s reading of the Mother Goose poem “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” Throughout all of the subsequent format changes, from 78 rpm’s to 33 rpms to reel-to-reel to cassette, music may have made the money, but words were always there, available if you knew where to look. I vividly recall growing up with a five-disc 78 of Macbeth, owned by my parents and featuring Maurice Evans and Judith Anderson in the primary parts. It was the gateway drug to my lifelong love of Shakespeare, and I played those discs to death.

But it was the cassette, portable and relatively cheap, that launched the real audio revolution, as companies were founded to market readings of books, mainly fiction, to the masses. Audiobooks were now portable, playable on the amazingly convenient Walkman or in a player in the dashboard of your car. One of the earliest companies to produce these recordings was Books on Tape, a California company whose business model was renting cassettes of books to subscribers through the mail. They also sold their product to libraries, where cardholders could check them out and make their own recordings. Even though it was expressly forbidden (and one heard this admonition at the beginning of every book), many did.

The digital revolution was another transcendent moment for the industry, with the ability to download audio files onto an iPod or smartphone, leading to a huge spike in popularity. According to the Wall Street Journal in 2014, audiobooks are now a $1.2 billion industry, up from $480 million in 1997. Audible, the industry leader (now owned by Amazon, not surprisingly), has nearly 275,000 audiobooks available for sale, many available with their Whispersync feature, which allows the recorded version to sync with an eBook, permitting the reader/listener to switch seamlessly between formats. Amazing stuff, especially for someone who grew up listening to Shakespeare on 78’s.

The earliest recordings of John D MacDonald novels were done by the Library of Congress for their Talking Books Division, a part of the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped. This service distributes free audio transcriptions through a network of over a hundred regional and sub-regional libraries throughout the country and is available only to eligible patrons. The JDM titles, originally available on either tape or disc, began being produced in the mid-1970’s and included a little over half of the Travis McGee series (Pink, Orange, Lemon, Green and Turquoise were some of the early titles) as well as a smattering of the stand-alones, including Condominium, The Drowner and Where Is Janice Gantry? I’ve never had the opportunity to listen to any of these adaptations and have no idea who performed them. The service is still going strong and I imagine they have modernized to digital downloads and, perhaps, broadened their JDM selections.

Michael Prichard
In 1977 Books on Tape began doing MacDonald, and -- no surprise -- focused on the McGee series. They started, I believe, with the first McGee bestseller, The Dreadful Lemon Sky and also did Gold that year. The books -- all of them -- were read by Michael J Prichard, a Los Angeles stage actor who has gone on to record over 500 books in his career. Speaking in a rich baritone, Prichard’s McGee is done matter-of-factly, with little emotion and minimal efforts to differentiate characters by vocal style or pitch. Still, his McGee is a good one and he got better as the series progressed. Once the listener gets through the first few chapters his rendition it’s a comfortable fit. Here’s an example, the first few paragraphs of The Deep Blue Good-by, which Books on Tape didn’t get around to doing until 1982.


That same year Prichard, who by this time had himself become a big McGee and MacDonald fan, wrote a letter to the JDM Bibliophile which was published in issue #31 in January of 1983.

My job is as a professional reader for a company called Books on Tape, which records full-length, unabridged versions of books, and makes them available by rental to the general public. One of my favorite assignments has been to record MacDonald’s Travis McGee series. So far I’ve recorded all but five of them, but those should go quickly. (However, since Books on Tape wishes to release them over a period of time, I don’t know when they’ll all be available... As any fan, I don’t look forward to running out of McGees; but my bosses at BoT have said that I may also be doing the non-McGees, which I am looking forward to.

The only stand-alones I’m aware of Books on Tape producing was a version of Barrier Island, read by New England actor Jeremiah Kissel, and Condominium, which I’ve never heard and don’t know who performed it.

In 1982 Random House, who would eventually acquire Books on Tape in 2001, recorded an abridged version of then-bestseller Cinnamon Skin and chose film and television actor Kevin Conway to read it. Conway does a great job as the older, wearier McGee of Cinnamon Skin, but it was a one-shot and no attempt to do the earlier books was apparently made at that time. Then, in 1986 Conway did a version of Darker Than Amber for Random House, again doing a great job, but again, the version was abridged. A decision was made after Amber to record the entire series, but instead of using Conway, Random House hired veteran film actor Darren McGavin. McGavin was an inspired choice, having already starred as two very different yet iconic private detectives, Mike Hammer (the Anti-McGee) and Carl Kolchak (yes, Kolchak was a reporter, but a detective in every sense of the word). And although McGavin bore no physical resemblance to the six-foot-four Travis McGee, his take on the character was dead-on, imparting all of the character’s self-awareness and occasional jaundiced view of himself. Also, his performance of the other characters, especially the women, was a step above that of his predecessors; McGavin was acting, not just reading a book.

Over the next seven years Random House Audiobooks produced McGavin versions of all of the remaining titles in the McGee series, minus the two novels that had been done by Conway. These were the first JDM audiobooks available for sale to the general public, and in 1994, the year McGavin recorded the last in the series (Tan -- the titles were not done in order of publication), Random House re-released the entire series -- including the two Conway versions -- as part of their Price Less budget line: each novel on two cassettes in bare bones packaging, priced at $8.99. Who could ask for more?

Well, as it turned out, plenty. Despite the excellent performance and superior production values (each novel featured music in the form of a mournful jazz intro reminiscent of Jerry Goldsmith’s iconic main theme for Chinatown), these were abridged versions, and who want’s to listen to Travis McGee, or any JDM work, abridged? When these were the only JDM audiobooks available one had little choice -- I listened to these novels multiple times travelling back and forth from DC to Tennessee several years ago -- but now that there are other options I rarely put these on my iPod anymore. The abridgements are extremely annoying to the listener familiar with the works, in two ways. First, the text itself is heavily edited. Here’s the same opening passage from Blue, transcribed. The red sentences are ones that have been excised, and the green sentence is one that has been moved to a different point in the text, where I have placed a green asterisk.


It was to have been a quiet evening at home.


Home is the Busted Flush,  52-foot barge-type houseboat, Slip F-18, Bahia Mar, Lauderdale.


Home is where the privacy is. Draw all the opaque curtains, button the hatches, and with the whispering drone of the air conditioning masking all the sounds of the outside world, you are no longer cheek to jowl with the random activities aboard the neighbor craft. You could be in a rocket beyond Venus, or under the icecap.


Because it is a room aboard, I call it the lounge, and because that is one of the primary activities.


I was sprawled on a deep curve of the corner couch, studying charts of the keys, trying to work up enough enthusiasm and energy to plan moving the Busted Flush to a new mooring for a while. She has a pair of Hercules diesels, 58 HP each, that will chug her along at a stately six knots. I didn't want to move her. I like Lauderdale. But it had been so long I was wondering if I should.


Chookie McCall was choreographing some fool thing. She had come over because I had the privacy and enough room. She had shoved the furniture out of the way, set up a couple of mirrors from the master stateroom, and set up her rackety little metronome. She wore a faded old rust-red leotard, mended with black thread in a couple of places. She had her black hair tied into a scarf.


She was working hard. She would go over a sequence time and time again, changing it a little each time, and when she was satisfied, she would hurry over to the table and make the proper notations on her clip board.


Dancers work as hard as coal miners used to work. She stomped and huffed and contorted her splendid and perfectly proportioned body. * In spite of the air conditioning, she had filled the lounge with a faint sharp-sweet odor of' large overheated girl. She was a pleasant distraction. In the lounge lights there was a highlighted gleam of perspiration on the long round legs and arms.


"Damn!" she said, scowling at her notations.


"What's wrong?"


"Nothing I can't fix. I have to figure exactly where everybody is going to be, or I'll have them kicking each other in the face. I get mixed up sometimes."


She scratched out some notes. I went back to checking the low tide depths on the flats northeast of the Content Keys. She worked hard for another ten minutes, made her notes, then leaned against the edge of the table, breathing hard.


"Trav, honey."


"Mmm?"


"Were you kidding me that time we talked about...about what you do for a living?"


"What did I say?"


"It sounded sort of strange, but I guess I believed you. You said if X has something valuable and Y comes along and takes it away from him, and there is absolutely no way in the world X can ever get it back, then you come along and make a deal with X to get it back, and keep half. Then you just...live on that until it starts to run out. Is that the way it is, really?"


"It's a simplification, Chook, but reasonably accurate."

The second form of editing was to lop out entire sections of the novel and replace them with a synopsis read by a narrator (not McGavin). These sections seem to have been done when random sentence editing would have done too much damage to the narrative. Here’s how a large chunk of Cathy Kerr’s story of her time with Junior Allen is heard, beginning at the top of page 11 of the first edition:


McGavin (as Cathy): “When Mother died it was good to have him close. Christine stopped her job because somebody had to be with the kids, but with me and Junior Allen working, there was just enough to get by. There was one thing strange in all that time he was with us.”


Narrator: Cathy told Travis that Junior Allen had constantly asked questions about her father, and in hindsight she realized he was hunting for clues. Using a variety of excuses, he managed to dig up just about every part of the yard. Then one morning she woke to find him gone. He had taken apart the rock markers at the end of the driveway and left behind only a piece of rotten cloth, that might once been army color. Junior Allen’s last search had apparently been rewarded.


McGavin (resuming as Cathy): “He took along his personal things, so I knew it was just like Wally Kerr all over again. No good looking for him.”

These annoying synopses appear throughout the recording and really detract from what could have been the definitive audio versions of the Travis McGee series.

Twenty years later much had changed. The cassette had gone the way of the dodo and audio was almost exclusively digital. In 2012 a company called Brilliance Audio (part of Amazon) was granted the rights to produce audio versions of the McGee series and they hired a New York stage actor named Robert Petkoff to do the readings. Petkoff possesses some serious acting chops and had extensive theatrical credentials (I saw him back in 1994 in a production of Romeo and Juliet, where he had the thankless role of Paris), including both film and television experience. The audiobooks were marketed both as CD sets and CD-MP3’s to libraries and the general public. Mystery writer and JDM fan Lee Child was hired to do a brief introduction, which appeared on all of the novels. Audible and other similar web services offer digital download to a computer or mobile device. (For some reason, the Lee Child intros are absent the Audible versions.) As far as I have been able to tell, these audiobooks have sold very, very well.

Robert Petkoff
Of the four actors who have taken on the role of McGee, Petkoff is my favorite. He certainly has the greatest range of the group, and he attacks the books with energy and enthusiasm. You get the sense that he is enjoying reading these books and that he likes the character of McGee. His rendition of the other characters comes closer to acting than than any of his predecessors, modulating his voice and using accents when needed (his take on Lady Becky in Indigo is a scream). And therein lies one of the quandaries of “performing” a work of fiction in the first person singular. Since all of the action is told through the voice of the narrator, does one become that character or merely relate what that character did and said? There’s no right or wrong, of course, but it does make one question the reliability of the narrator: how close to the truth is McGee’s account of the action? 

Here's a sample of Petkoff from that same section of Blue:


The Brilliance Audio/Audible McGee’s were so successful that the company began producing versions of some of MacDonald’s stand alone novels. To date they have done The Brass Cupcake, A Flash of Green, A Key to the Suite, Condominium (all read by Richard Ferrone), Dead Low Tide, The Girl, The Gold Watch and Everything, The Executioners (under the Cape Fear title), Slam the Big Door (all read by Stephen Hove) and two versions of the same novel, A Bullet for Cinderella, one under that title (read by Tom S Weiss) and another under its alternate title On the Make (read by Robert Armin). Nowhere on Audible’s website does it reveal that these two audiobooks are the same novel.

I’ve purchased several of these titles and all are quite good, with one reservation. Stephen Hove, who did a superlative job with The Executioners, does a less that adequate rendition of Bonny Lee in The Girl, The Gold Watch and Everything, making her sound more like Ellie Mae Clampett than a John D MacDonald character.

One final John D MacDonald audiobook I’m aware of is yet another version of A Bullet for Cinderella. This novel appears to be the only JDM book-length work that has fallen into the public domain, allowing Gutter Press to reprint the novel in 2010 as On the Make. (For background on the two titles, you can read my piece on A Bullet for Cinderella here.) It has also opened the door for LibriVox, a non-commercial, non-profit company that specializes in producing public domain audiobooks read by volunteers, to make their own version of the novel. It’s read by Winston Tharp, who does an amazing job of conveying the lost quality of the book’s protagonist, Tal Howard, a former POW in search of both treasure and some meaning in his life. It’s one of the best JDM audiobooks out there and it is 100% free! You can download it from here.

It seems entirely probable that more audio versions of JDM’s works will soon become available, although I have no inside information myself. And while audiobooks will never replace actual reading -- at least for me -- it is a wonderful way to experience the works as interpreted by other artists. Nowadays I find myself actually looking forward to getting stuck in rush hour traffic...

2 comments:

  1. I agree with your endorsement of the Petkoff versions. I've got'em all. For me, at this juncture, Petkoff's performance is the definitive voice of both McGee & Meyer.

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  2. Hi, thanks for you great blog. I have been a fan of JDM since 1988, I flew to Miami on business and picked up a Travis McGee novel in the airport and was hooked. I have pics of me beside the plaque at Bahia Mar before the put it inside.

    I bought a couple of the Darren McGavin abridged version and hated the way they edited them. I am currently acquiring the Robert Petkoff versions where are very good.

    Thanks for you blog my friend.

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