Audiobook proves not all authors are equal
Twists and turns, action and adventure, The Chopin Manuscript, a high profile thriller written by the genre's biggest names, has them all. Better yet, with this page-turner, you don't even have to turn the pages. That's because The Chopin Manuscript is available exclusively as an audiobook.
Audible.com, the Internet-based audiobook retailer, has partnered with the International Thriller Writers group to produce this, the first major work of serial fiction created specifically as an audio download. (The book is being released by Audible in separate chapters, with the final installment delivered on Nov. 13.)
The Chopin Manuscript combines the talents of some of today's top thriller writers, including Jeffery Deaver, Lee Child, Joseph Finder and Lisa Scottoline, to craft a high-stakes tale of suspense.
The plot is a complicated one, centered around Harry Middleton, a former war crimes inspector who takes possession of a previously unknown score by Frederic Chopin. Middleton doesn't yet realize it, but the score contains a deadly secret, one that dark forces are willing to do anything to discover. As the action leaps from Poland to Italy, New York to Washington, D.C., Middleton and his colleagues are pursued by a murderous band of operatives, led by a shadowy figure known only as Faust.
Part of the fun of any good thriller novel is the serpentine reversals the story takes as it hurtles towards its conclusion. Here, however, that can be a drawback, as the complicated details of the plot -- things that would probably be simple enough to follow on the page -- are more easily lost when the story is being listened to rather than read.
Also, since each chapter was written by a different author, some parts of the story work better than others. There are occasional flashes of excitement, interspersed with noticeable lulls. Too many chapters, like those of Erica Spindler and James Grady, don't do enough to advance the plot, instead spinning their wheels on tangents that try to gin up suspense, but instead just bleed away the story's momentum. Better is Child's contribution, which at least adds forward motion to the plot, even if it does become bogged down in too many esoteric details involving music. The best, though, are the chapters written by Finder and Deaver -- solid pieces of storytelling that add depth of character while avoiding melodrama and ersatz excitement.
The main plot is reasonably interesting, however, and there are passages that have the ability to get the heart pounding.
English actor Alfred Molina does a good job of narrating the story, accompanied by minimal mood-setting music. As is true of many male audiobook narrators, he does a better job with the male characters than the female (his readings for the women sometimes come across as unintentionally funny). Molina also stumbles a bit when he tries to do some regional American accents.
Serial novels like this, no matter what the quality of the writers involved, almost never work particularly well. Expecting even the most skilled wordsmith to write but one chapter in a book that has already been marked by the minds of a dozen other writers is a Herculean task.
There have been a few of these novels written in the mystery/thriller genre in the past -- perhaps most notably 1997's Naked Came the Manatee -- and other than the name value of the authors involved, they've had little to recommend them. The Chopin Manuscript is better than the previous efforts, but ultimately it's still not nearly as satisfying as a book from any one of the authors would be on its own.
From the Chicago Sun-Times, October 21, 2007