Reviews: e-books and audiobooks - E. L. Doctorow, Georges Simenon, and Victorian Gothic
From one of America's late great novelists to the 15th of Simenon's Maigret novels and five short works by Mary Shelley contemporary Sheridan Le Fanu, there's a wide range of literature here
E.L. Doctorow, who died last month aged 84, was one of America's great historical novelists. Ragtime was his breakthrough, critically and commercially. Set during the first two decades of the 20th century, it follows a rich, unnamed family in New York state. The main characters are known only as Father, Mother, Grandfather and Mother's Younger Brother. The narrator intertwines their stories with real figures including J.P. Morgan, Henry Ford and anarchist Emma Goldman. The plot proper is propelled by Coalhouse Walker, a ragtime musician who befriends the family. When his case of racial prejudice against a local fire-crew is ignored, he carries out a series of attacks to bring the injustice to light. It is rather lovely to hear Doctorow read his masterpiece, somewhat breathlessly, as if he cannot believe his luck in having written such a vibrant portrait of American life. If you know only Milos Forman's 1981 movie, prepare to be amazed at how much he left out.
Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow (read by E.L.Doctorow) Audible (audiobook)
Penguin's courageous project to publish all of Georges Simenon's fiction, for eye and ear, has reached number 15 of his Inspector Maigret mysteries. First published in 1932, and newly translated by David Bellos, The Madman of Bergerac sees Maigret heading en vacances to the Dordogne. Fans of crime fiction will know this spells imminent danger: Sherlock Holmes was never long on his holidays before someone was murdered. Maigret's peace is disturbed from the moment he lies down in his sleeping car. The man in the bunk above his head thrashes like a crazy person, tries to flee the train, shoots Maigret and vanishes into the town of Bergerac. Having been mistaken for someone who is killing local citizens, Maigret investigates the odd goings-on, quickly realising that most people would like him to have been the killer. Armstrong reads with coolness and pace, not overdoing Simenon's Frenchness nor neglecting his dry humour.
The Madman of Bergerac by Georges Simenon (read by Gareth Armstrong) Audible (audiobook)
Sheridan Le Fanu was one of the 19th century's most celebrated writers of gothic fantasies - no mean feat given that he had Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker and Matthew "Monk" Lewis as competition. The five works that comprise In a Glass Darkly are linked by Dr Martin Hesselius, whose posthumous papers recount his investigations into the occult. As this suggests, all the stories drift nicely in the supernatural realm. In Green Tea, read with suitable gravitas by Nicholas Boulton, the Reverend Jennings, a stately bachelor whose love of the titular beverage has resulted in demonic visions (wait for it) of a "small black monkey". The mix of melodrama, silliness and the uncanny runs throughout. It is admirable that Alison Pettitt manages not to laugh when reading lines such as this: "Dreams come through stone walls, light up dark rooms, or darken light ones, and … laugh at locksmiths." That she injects Carmilla with something genuinely unsettling is nothing short of remarkable.
In a Glass Darkly by Sheridan Le Fanu (read by various) Naxos (audiobook)