“Murder on the Orient Express,” by Agatha Christie. (Harper Audio. Unabridged, 6¼ hours.)
Kenneth Branagh’s narration of “Murder on the Orient Express” arrives in tandem with the movie version, which he directs and stars in as Hercule Poirot. Here he takes on the entire multinational cast, and the result is a highly entertaining, virtuoso performance of voice and manner. As befits a novel written by that most English of mystery writers, Branagh’s version of a French (and Belgian) accent is not so much authentically French as it is the time-honored Monty Python version of Frenchmen tackling English. His Americans — among them gabby Mrs. Hubbard and the sinister Ratchett’s agreeable private secretary, Hector MacQueen — are excellent, broad-voweled fun. Branagh goes to town on the Italian-American Antonio Foscarelli and comes into his glory with the formidable Princess Dragomiroff, whose autocratic Russianness is a treat every time she opens her imperious mouth. (“I think, Madame,” Poirot observes, “your strength is in your will, not in your arm.”) It doesn’t matter if you know the plot. “Murder on the Orient Express” as performed by Branagh is more than a mystery, it is a delicious performance.
“The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage,” by Philip Pullman. (Listening Library. Unabridged, 13 hours.)
Actor Michael Sheen brings the rich timbre of his Welsh voice to Philip Pullman’s “The Book of Dust,” an antecedent to the “His Dark Materials” trilogy. Free from much of the cosmological and didactic trappings of its predecessors, this is a terrific, suspense-filled adventure that is nigh unto impossible to switch off. Played out in an England existing in a dimension parallel to ours, the story finds Lyra, star of the trilogy, as a baby pursued by a madman and his hideous hyena daemon. Lyra’s protectors are 11-year-old Malcolm and 15-year-old Alice. They flee with baby Lyra in La Belle Sauvage, Daniel’s cherished canoe, paddling through a flooded Thames Valley, a nightmarish waterscape bobbing with bodies and infested with rogues, villains, a very bad fairy and a water giant, slow and sogged of speech. Sheen’s voice truly contains multitudes, capturing the nature of each character with brio and passing from speaker to speaker with preternatural limberness. This is an audio book for everyone over the age of 8, a splendid achievement of storytelling and a masterpiece of voice acting.
“Uncommon Type: Some Stories,” by Tom Hanks. (Random House Audio. 10 hours.)
Tom Hanks reads his own debut collection of 17 stories. They are paeans to a bygone America, as well as to space and time travel, newspapers and, pre-eminently, to the venerable typewriter — even though, as one character notes, “A man needs a typewriter these days like he needs a timber ax.” Heartwarming, often humorous, and at times a little hokey, the stories grow on you. One concerns a man repeatedly returning to the 1939 World’s Fair by time travel to see a woman. In another, some friends travel around the moon. Four stories are jeremiads against the digital age by a hack reporter. Elsewhere, children figure out what lay behind their parents’ divorce, and a newly unattached woman gets a life with — no surprise — a typewriter. As it happens, Hanks plays an excellent manual typewriter himself, putting his all into the “chonk-a-chonk” of typing, line-ending ba-dings, carriage returns and the sound of paper being whipped off the platen roller. His genial, regular-guy voice maintains the general narration.
Minnesota native Katherine A. Powers reviews for the Star Tribune, Newsday and other places. She writes this column for the Washington Post.