Much has been written about how audio books require the right reader. Just a few weeks ago, A.O. Scott praised a new recording Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, read by Bryan Cranston, arguing that ”Cranston may be the most charismatic embodiment of moral ambiguity we currently possess.” Shortly before he died, Christopher Hitchens praised Martin Jarvis’s deftness with P.G. Wodehouse in Vanity Fair, and wrote that the reader makes one “almost overhear the classic” Right Ho, Jeeves. I have also heard that Will Patton does impressive work with Denis Johnson.
For me, though, no one will ever top Elliott Gould as Philip Marlowe. At the end of the 1990s, Mr. Gould recorded The Big Sleep, The Long Goodbye, Playback, Farewell My Lovely, and a few other works by Raymond Chandler. For my money, there’s never been a better audio paring of author and narrator.
Marlowe is defined by his honor and his world-weariness, both of these coupled with a gruffness you can almost forget, until it becomes necessary for him not to let you forget about it any longer. Humphrey Bogart sold the part with his sleepy eyes and sardonic manner, his inquiries more amused than prodding, it seemed, and then, suddenly, he’d cracked the mystery of Carmen Sternwood all the same.
Mr. Gould manages to accomplish this with just his voice. “He sounded like a man who had slept well and didn’t owe too much money,” he reads evenly, letting the wit sneak up on you, the way the text does.The evenness also conveys that honor, that incorruptibility and unstoppable element of Marlowe. Mr. Gould possess one of the deepest voices out there, yet he doesn’t do that silly trick of going high for the female characters. He more whispers the lines, to let Marlowe’s follow-up flirtations stick with you the way they stick with the femme fatales on the receiving end (“Tall, aren’t you?” “I didn’t mean to be.”) And you want world-weariness? Mr. Gould’s voice is less gravelly than it is Sisyphean; each paragraph feels like boulders being moved around.
When I first found these audio books I was working freelance, my main income a night shift doing stuff so soft-boiled I couldn’t possibly reveal what it was here, but on the off chance that I’ve accidentally established some kind of tough guy credibility in this blurblette about reading goofy books, I’ll say it involved T.V. blogging. Anyway, I hadn’t yet discovered Robert Altman’s amazing adaptation of The Long Goodbye, in which Mr. Gould plays a hipster version of Marlowe in the 1970s, which made these private eye diversions seem that much more private. All the same, I recommend you try them sometime if you’re ever walking home from a job at 4 a.m.