There was a prime reason I made it a point to read The Drowning Machine book blog when I started web logging myself. It all came down to the splendid writer and reviewer penning the posts — Corey Wilde then, and Naomi Johnson now. Reading Corey’s book reviews was a highlight (and an attribute of the blog that Naomi continues to this day). It’s a gift that he could establish the book’s synopsis and whet the reader’s beak just so with his examination of the story within.
The scope of the crime fiction (and authors) he covered made reading his posts so enlightening for those like me who dropped by regularly. And it was his review in April 2009 of Adrian McKinty‘s novel, Fifty Grand, that drove me to this audiobook and to write a post on the work [one that's updated here since June is Audiobook Month].
In hindsight, bringing this considerable and underrated novel to my attention was one of best things in 2009 (and now that I re-examine it, the decade of the 00s for that matter). I’ll quote him here because Corey was quite right in his assessment,
“Yeah. It’s that good.”
Initially, it wasn’t an attempt of mine to review said suspense novel — it’s been done better by bloggers like Corey and others. However, since this novel was such a great experience, I sought to put something down. Besides, who am I kidding — it’s a review. Years later, the characters and situations McKinty wove are still rolling around in my head.
As was my habit back then, I held off starting another audiobook because I had to put something down in words. Primarily, I enjoyed the author’s use of distinctive cultures and ethnicity throughout his novel. What others have labeled ‘cultural identity’. As well, I’ve always been a sucker for contrast whether in visual graphic design or the color combinations I gravitate to.
In this case, it’s the imaginative composition of a gifted writer. The fact that Mr. McKinty is of Northern Irish heritage and wrote such a mesmerizing novel involving an immigrant population (one that periodically reaps much fear and scorn going on decades now) did not surprise me.
Self-evident differences aside, I’ve always thought the Irish and my Mexican culture shared a great deal. This would include their common religion, a grand expression through language and emotion, and their shared background of living through this society’s contempt for being a feared migrant group on U.S. soil.
Not to mention, the combination of Irish-Mexican-American is not unheard of. Just ask Martin Sheen (but let’s agree to not cover the train-wreck that is his youngest son, thank you very much). Mr. McKinty examines that cultural identity so very well in the pages he’s written.
The novelist’s unexpected use of a female Cuban police detective as the revengeful protagonist, and as the outside observer of our actual practices and missteps (steering away from the platitudes politicians love to point out), was key to the reading enjoyment and intrigue the author doled out. It genuinely drove home the narrative in unforeseen ways, I believe.
That dissimilarity made Detective Mercado a remarkable foil, an extraordinary personality because of her perspective. As a Cuban woman (and not another victim or some femme fatale in a crime novel) who happens to be of law enforcement gave weight to her keen observations of Mexican migrant workers in and outside U.S. society as she blended among them while navigating her way toward her father’s killer.
Cuba, too, with its proximity and historical ties to this country (let alone for being the spot in global crisis) also made a surprisingly familiar and foreign angle to approach this and separated it from being some typical revenge tale. Add to this what authors James Lee Burke, Michael Koryta, and others recognize about this genre in particular [paraphrasing in my words]:
… crime fiction is now the vehicle, and an entertaining one at that, for examining the society we live in through the actions of those on the out of it.
The author and the novel performed this beautifully. As a fan of the audiobook format, the Blackstone Audio‘s production of Fifty Grand was remarkably well done, in my opinion. This was especially true for the studio managers and their choice of the production’s reader. Paula Christensen turned out to be a perfect selection — I’m in great company on this since the author himself seemed to confirm this in a post soon after the novel’s publication.
I’ve found a few audiobook publishers seem to pick narrators based upon name, reputation, or availability sometimes without giving more sway for the language needs a book’s audio form may need. And Mr. McKinty’s novel, with its wonderful use of English, intonation, and the generous sprinkling of Spanish, demanded it.
Though I’m losing some of my hearing, the ear for the Spanish language my grandmother instilled may represent my lone audio talent (meager as it is). Because I grew up and still live in the melting pot of L.A., I can, on occasion, recognize some of the Mexican, Central American, or Cuban dialects native speakers wield. And because of this, listening to any audiobook where the reader mangles the pronunciation of the spanish words in a book heavy with them just grates on me something fierce.
Note, as I’ve complained often through the years about author Mark Bowen performing the narration of his Killing Pablo audiobook, this will be my last protestation on the matter. Sorry to say, but Simon & Schuster Audio blew that audio publication to hell by not taking this point into consideration. Sheesh! Okay, I’m done.
Blackstone’s wise use of the bilingual Argentinian actress, Ms. Christensen, eliminated a similar blunder. Besides, she gave an extraordinary performance in narrating the book. She moved effortlessly between the English and Spanish words — even through the various characters of different ethnicities which the author breathed life into in print. And, she absolutely nailed the spanish curse words! You can tell I very much appreciated that aspect ;-).
Still, beyond her obvious language skill, this narrator delivered the story and all of its characters in more than convincing fashion. It’s not just the words, but how you say them that counts. None more so when it’s an audiobook in play. All in all, I’ll forever associate her with the character of Detective Mercado. Hers was one of best performances I heard in the first decade of this century. Luckily for me (and other audiobook listeners), it proved to be a great pairing for an extraordinary novel.
A sample of the work by Blackstone Audio is available on their Fifty Grand web page.