“Agent Running in the Field,” by John le Carré. (Penguin Audio, Unabridged, 9½ hours)
John le Carré, master of espionage and gifted voice actor, gives an outstanding performance narrating his 25th novel, a spy thriller set in England’s torrid summer of 2018.
As Brexit and a visit from the American president create havoc, spy handler Nat has been relegated to heading British intelligence service’s substation for has-beens and screw-ups called “Haven.” Nat, a champion badminton player, is challenged to a match by a young, Brexit-hating, Trump-loathing man named Ed, another of le Carré’s idealistic innocents.
One thing leads to another, and the rest of le Carré’s distinctive ingredients come sifting in: queasy loyalties and disillusion, enemy agents’ unholy infatuation with one another, and cynical, high-level scapegoating. Cryptic, exciting and witty, the novel is further enhanced by its author’s delivery. His rich, woodwind baritone mutates effortlessly into an arrogant old-boy bray, industrial Midlands clunk and the brittle tones of “one of those upper-class girls who grew up with ponies.”
The plot does execute a few improbable maneuvers, but that is more than compensated by the perfect unity between story and narrator.
“The Big Book of the Dead,” by Marion Winik. (Tantor, Unabridged, 5 hours)
Marion Winik’s reminiscences of dead family members, friends and others is as much a memoir as it is a salute to those who have lived. There is sadness here but also humor and wit and an overall feeling of engagement with life.
The 125 pieces evoke changes in social milieu and way of life, from Bohemianism and drug use to motherhood, widowhood and purpose. Winik narrates the book herself in a bold, pleasantly low-pitched voice, her delivery exceptionally expressive of the emotions that her fine, concise writing conjures.
Each person — and, in some cases, animal — is captured in an eloquent vignette, at times high-spirited or melancholy and moving. Among her subjects are her mother, the golf champ; her first, much-loved husband, who lost his battle with AIDS; her stillborn baby; Rocco, a cat; Leslie, a personable goldfish; and the man whose life taught her that it’s “necessary and gorgeous to be who you are” — which could be the central message of these marvelous portraits.
“The Man That Got Away,” by Lynne Truss. (Lamplight Audiobooks, Unabridged, 7½ hours)
This is Lynne Truss’ second novel starring Constable Twitten. It is summer 1957 in the English seaside town of Brighton and young Twitten has become a devotee of Nancy Mitford’s “Noblesse Oblige,” in which the elements of “U” (upper-class) and “Non-U” locutions were set before a class-obsessed English public.
Twitten insists, unheeded, that the book could be a valuable forensic tool in identifying criminals — and so it turns out to be. But that vindication comes long after the madcap plot has wended its way through the town’s seedier holiday attractions and bumped up against a ragtag selection of miscreants, among the police-station charlady and “criminal mastermind,” Mrs. Groynes.
Matt Green narrates this deft caper with a fine selection of voices and infectious enthusiasm for its many about-turns. He sounds as baffled as we are by where this is all heading — and as pleased, too, when we find that a group of supposed musicians are, unknown to each other, operatives from Interpol, New Scotland Yard, MI5, Brighton Police and Mrs. Groynes’ gang.
A Minnesota native, Katherine A. Powers reviews books for the Wall Street Journal, the Star Tribune and elsewhere. She writes this column for the Washington Post.