Monday, August 5, 2013

Pure gold

In what will not be news in this my seventh year of keeping this blog (maybe I am experiencing an itch of some variety), my blogging is lagging behind my listening. Home with a nasty summer cold (which comes with much greater case of self-pity than those acquired in the cooler months), I've decided to try and catch up.  I'm hoping that the morning's silence so far bodes well (cold or not, the sound of a leaf blower has just gotten on my last nerve lately).

I ended up listening to Laurie R. King's Touchstone thanks to a reference desk conversation last month. Noticing that a new King title was just loaded into the catalog, we were talking about King's delightful character Mary Russell and hoping that this book would finally get her out of northern Africa. Further exploration revealed that this latest book, The Bones of Paris, does not include Mary Russell at all, but does feature a character King had created for an earlier book. A book I realized that I had not read yet. Ah, the pleasures of not always needing to read the "latest" book (says the woman who has been waiting forever for Beautiful Ruins), Touchstone was on the shelf.

Touchstone takes place in 1926 England and introduces us to Harris Stuyvesant, a pugnacious New Yorker currently employed by J. Edgar Hoover's Bureau of Investigation. He is on the trail of a skilled and clever terrorist, responsible for several bombs aimed at politicians and businessmen in the US. This bomber, Stuyvesant believes, is an English politician named Richard Bunsen -- a rising star in the Labour Party. Stuyvesant, who has gone undercover before, needs access to Bunsen's circle and -- in order to get it -- has entered into a uneasy relationship with Aldous Carstairs, a government functionary who doesn't appear to be connected with an actual government agency. Carstairs suggests that Stuyvesant meet a World War I veteran Bennett Grey, who has exiled himself in deepest Cornwall.  Due to profound war injuries, Grey, the touchstone of the title, can sense secrets and truths normally kept hidden when he is in close proximity with people. Carstairs has gone to great lengths to put Grey's skills to use, but Grey has resisted. If Stuyvesant brings Grey to the country house where Bunsen is participating in last-minute negotiations to prevent the General Strike, Stuyvesant's bomber may be captured, but at what cost to Grey?

Yikes! Confused? Suffice to say that King exhibits her usual attention to period detail while creating characters that seem painfully truthful. Grey's suffering is profound, and if Carstairs is a little too secret-government-agency evil, their match of wills is a tantalizingly suspenseful one. Stuyvesant is a fairly complicated guy himself, a blend of Hoover-ish anti-Communism and thoughtful liberal understanding with a dash of American derring do (and violence), which keeps him interesting as well (even if his motives for catching the bomber are a little trite -- dead fiancée, brother with traumatic brain injury). He's no Mary Russell, but he is entertaining.

A new-to-me narrator, Jefferson Mays, reads the novel. Mays has some stage experience in playing multiple roles (I Am My Own Wife and A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder), so audiobook narrator appears to come naturally (perhaps it came first?).  He's excellent here -- portraying a large cast of characters with naturalness and accuracy. Mays produces a variety of accents -- from the American of Stuyvesant to the public school tones of Grey and Carstairs, from a working-class Labour politician to a Scottish butler. His women sound natural, yet feminine.

King mostly tells this story from Stuyvesant's view but occasionally we get into the heads of Grey and the bomber.  While Mays maintains an American accent for the novel's narrative portions, he creates a subtle difference when the perspective changes from Stuyvesant to the other characters. He speaks with a more neutral tone in these parts adding to a sense of dislocation, while Stuyvesant's portions have an American energy and compulsion to keep solving the puzzle. At the end of the novel -- switching suspensefully between Stuyvesant and the bomber -- it's nail-biting.

I recognized the voice of narrator John Keating as the reader of the intros and outros on this audiobook. I don't much like Keating as a narrator, whose tics I have commented upon before. But his elongated pronunciation of "Laurie OR King" really lost me. The beginning of this novel is a tad confusing for a listener who can't leaf back and I was completely not in the audiobook for the first couple of minutes shaking my head over Keating's "r." Fortunately, I could just start over.

[I think the book on the cover represents The Book of Common Prayer, but I don't think it's a very good cover choice. Are those the "touchstone's" hands? The bomber's? The victim's? The frontispiece from the 1762 John Baskerville ("fonted" in Baskerville in his honor) Book was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

Touchstone by Laurie R. King
Narrated by Jefferson Mays
Recorded Books, 2008.  17:28

(Ah yes, too much to hope for. The blowers have landed.)

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