Susie Wilde: Audio books that chill to the bone

Jan. 05, 2013 @ 03:33 PM

“Gone Girl is the best book I read all summer,” said someone in my children’s book club, “But it’s an adult title.” And then, she shuddered. The following week several people in my exercise class referred to Gillian Flynn’s “Gone Girl” as addictive. I contacted the audio publicist, she gave a third recommendation and sent it immediately.
Now let me preface this review by saying that I am not opposed to chilling books. In fact, I like them, even those with serial killers. I discovered their power during years of teaching writing in elementary schools in Raleigh. Driving home after five intense classes, exhaustion and drowsiness set in. I needed a shot of caffeine, or adrenaline, to keep me awake. Over time I came to realize that serial killers worked better for me than coffee.
Before “Gone Girl,” I’d already sucked down two mysteries by favorite authors. In “Gone Missing” (Macmillan, 8 CDs, unabridged, 10 hours), Linda Castillo’s Kate Burkholder, a police chief in Amish country, focuses on teenagers who have gone missing during their Rumspringa, the time all teens are released from responsibilities to experience the Englisher’s lifestyle. Kathleen McInerney gives a gripping reading as Kate, raised in a similar Amish community, solves the mystery and experiences an uncomfortable tug remembering her own wild teenage years. The killers revealed at the end are surprising, but in terms of scare factor, I’d rank this a 3 on a 1-5 scale.
More adrenalin-provoking was Karin Slaughter’s fourth Georgia Bureau of Investigation series, “Criminal” (Audio Go, 13 CDs, 15.5 hours), which recounts parallel mysteries from time periods 40 years apart. “There are no serial killers in Atlanta,” says one of the 1975 sleuths. Slaughter devotees will hear this statement and suspect what’s coming, the uninitiated and faint of heart should stop at this point. Both crimes involve prostitute rings, heinous villains and two of Slaughter’s detectives – the earnest, dyslexic Will Trent and his protector, mentor and deputy director, Amanda Wagner. The ruthless killer in this mystery is terrifyingly cold, his techniques horrific, but the novel becomes more layered because of Slaughter’s gift for deepening her characters, her ability to seamlessly link plot threads, and for creating unrelenting tension merits a listen. Kathleen Early’s reading makes both time periods and terror real. Her accents give a sense of the Southern setting without being overwrought. Her reading ensures flow, plays up ironies, and heightens tension.
I felt well prepared for Gillian Flynn’s “Gone Girl” (Random House Audio, 13 CDs, 19 hours). But I soon discovered that although it was one of the most gripping audios I’ve heard in a long time, it wasn’t the serial killer mystery I expected. Even more curious, I couldn’t stop listening even though I felt it had two of the most unlikeable protagonists I’d encountered in audio books.
The characters don’t appear that way as the audio begins with glimpses and perspectives of married couple Nick and Amy Dunne in alternating first person narratives. Kirby Heyborne, as journalist Nick Dunne, speaks poetically of his wife’s head as lovely as “a riverbed fossil” and her equally beautiful brain filled with thoughts that move “through them like fast frantic centipedes.” As he wonders what she was thinking and feeling, so did I. Heyborne’s voice helps with Nick’s portrait—he moderates Dunne’s artistic sensibilities with wryness that cuts sentimentality. Nick’s lyricism almost lulled me into imagining their perfect life until he describes how he’s moved the unwilling New York-grown Amy to suburban Missouri and used up the majority of her inheritance when his career was destroyed by the economy. Still, I continued to see him as a loving husband, felt pity that his wife had gone missing, until he replayed a scene in which Amy greets him with “Hello, handsome,” and he experiences “bile and dread inching up his throat.” What? Wait! I thought. On reflection I saw this as a representation of Nick’s narrative—he continual paints pretty pictures, then destroys each one.
Flynn reveals the wife differently, introducing Amy through a journal written from the time she met Nick. Amy gives an enthusiastic view of their relationship, romantic tones balanced by her sassiness and the intelligence Nick has described. Julia Whelan, like Heyborne, completes the portrait, helping listeners imagine her surety, confidence, and humor that kept me from discounting her as snotty.
Quickly perspectives begin to differ, first mildly then wildly. But before I collected enough evidence to judge either character, realize their duplicity, question their motives and relationship, disengage and quit listening, I found myself buckled into a literary rollercoaster that twisted and turned, surprised and shocked me until the very end. Was it one of the best audio books I’d ever heard? I don’t know, but I’m still haunted by it.
Read more at Susie Wilde’s website, ignitingwriting.com.