Crime Fiction

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To read or hear?

Just this week there’s been another announcement that audiobooks are the biggest growth area of publishing, and that they're now so popular that some new books are only published in an audio format. What does this mean for library-users?
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Photo by Felipe Bustillo on Unsplash
I have to say that I love audio books and have listened to them for years. Long commutes and car journeys have been transformed; and household chores are made lighter when listening to a good book.

It used to be thought that talking books were the preserve of the elderly, or people whose sight was impaired. Now, though, they are listened to by all age groups – often as downloads to a smartphone or tablet. (If you travel by public transport, it’s very likely that many of the people attached to their phones by a trailing wire will be listening to a talking book!) In 2017 downloadable audio revenues across the publishing industry grew by 28.8%. So, audiobooks have to be a good thing, right?

Well yes, but in this scramble to attract new ‘readers’ there’s a real risk that publishers are excluding the people who most need audiobooks. The ‘Playaway’ format, for example, is disastrous. Designed for people on the move, the books are pre-loaded onto a small plastic device which fits easily into a pocket and which you listen to through an earbud. Some marketing person must have thought this was a good, cost-effective new product idea. But the publishers have clearly forgotten (or don’t care) about older readers with sight problems, or arthritic hands. The buttons are small, fiddly, and difficult to see, which makes the Playaways practically impossible for this demographic to use. So much for the inclusivity of digital media!

Otherwise though the audiobook offer from public libraries has improved dramatically over the past few years and e-audiobooks must be an efficient use of funds. Whatever format they come in, audiobooks aren’t cheap. But with a downloadable book there are at least no discs or tapes to damage or lose.

There are different e-library apps out there, but in Northamptonshire (UK) the e-library service is offered on BorrowBox. As I understand it, each library service chooses a plan which suits their budget, so the service and book choices may vary from county to county.

I like BorrowBox – not least because you can reserve and renew titles. (The previous e-Library offered by the County Council didn’t allow you to do that.) But it’s a mixed blessing because audiobooks are now so popular it can be difficult to borrow the titles you want. More often than not you log into the e-library and find almost every new title is out on loan for many months to come. It can be quite depressing!

So, I’ve found myself downloading books that I might have read years ago but forgotten about – re-visiting authors whose books I’d probably skim past on a bookshelf. But you know what? It’s been fun! Having someone read a book to you is a very different experience, and even books you know well can seem quite different when you’re listening to them. And all the audiobooks I’ve borrowed in the past few months have been read by wonderful actors who’ve really brought something extra to the story.

Here are some of my top picks:

Tom Clancy (Jack Ryan)
I love these books. In print they’re door-stoppers, so listening to the audio version is an easy way to enjoy them. The first Jack Ryan novel, The Hunt for Red October, was published in 1984 and by the time Clancy died in October 2013 there were 16 books in the series, with the last four being co-written with other authors. As the series progresses, hero Jack Ryan moves through the CIA to unexpectedly become President of the United States, so there are several books when he’s just a politician with a special group of covert agents known as ‘The Campus’ roaming the world to do the dirty work. Then, in The Teeth of the Tiger (2003), Ryan’s son, Jack Jr. makes an appearance and soon takes on his father’s mantle as man-of-action. Now the series continues with Jack Jr. as the main action-character and there are nine titles so far with him in the lead role. The books are great adventure stories and they’re gripping.

Dick Francis
Reacquainting myself with Dick Francis I realise how ‘ordinary’ the characters in his books are. They feel real. Mix that with horse racing and suddenly these ordinary people are in extraordinary situations, battling to overcome the odds and solve a mystery. The plots grab you quickly and the stories proceed at a good lick, yet they’re easy to pick up and put down. If you’re not able to listen for a couple of days, no matter. You’re soon back in the saddle and heading for the Finish! Recent titles I’ve listened to are Proof (1984) and The Edge (1988). You might also like to know that Felix Francis (Dick Francis’s son) writes thrillers in his own right, and these are good too.

Paul Temple by Francis Durbridge
Dated? Of course. The first Paul Temple story appeared in 1938 and it’s a land of cocktails, frocks and dinner jackets. But enjoyable nonetheless, and full of derring-do. Paul Temple is an author of crime fiction who turns his hand to detection, usually solving crimes that Scotland Yard can’t fathom. The books aren’t long and they move at a brisk pace because they were originally written for radio. The language can be a bit strange (Temple often utters the exclamation ‘By Timothy!’, for example), but they’re fun and very easy-listening. The two most recent that I’ve listened to were Paul Temple Intervenes (1944) read by Toby Stephens and Paul Temple and the Front Page Men (1939) read by Anthony Head.

P.G. Wodehouse
I know, I know. Wodehouse doesn’t write crime fiction! But if you’re browsing BorrowBox for something to listen to, don’t overlook him – whether you choose the more familiar Jeeves & Woosters, or the less well-known Psmith books, they’re terrific. They’re usually read by actors such as Jonathan Cecil, who brilliantly capture the language and silliness, and all the ridiculous characters. I defy you not to enjoy Wodehouse when it’s read out loud. And I promise you’ll end up laughing out loud too. I’ve recently enjoyed Right Ho, Jeeves (on BorrowBox) and Mike & Psmith (on CD).

So, take a look at your library service’s digital offer. BorrowBox offers e-books as well as e-audiobooks; and most library services also offer digital newspapers and magazines. It costs nothing to join a public library, and borrowing digital titles is also free. But you need the right kit to download them. (And that’s really a plea for library services and publishers to recognise that not everyone has a smartphone, computer or tablet, so they should continue to offer audiobooks in different formats too!)
Cornish Eskimo

If you enjoy reading crime fiction why not come along to one of our meetings? They’re on the third Friday of every month, 2.30pm @ Oundle Library. It’s all very informal because we don’t have a set reading list. We do, however, enjoy a wide-ranging chat about the books we’ve read and enjoyed. Everyone welcome!