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Invention and detection, in tales thick and 'Thin'

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell
By Susanna Clarke
Audio Renaissance, unabridged fiction, 26 CDs, 32 hours,
$59.95, read by Simon Prebble.
Also available as a download from www.audible.com, $44.97.

The Thin Man
By Dashiell Hammett
Audio Editions, unabridged fiction, six CDs, 5 hours and 59 minutes,
$29.95, read by William Dufris.
Also available unabridged on five cassettes, $27.95, or as a download from www.audible.com, $20.96.

It took a couple of months to get ''Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell" off the shelf. Its weight seemed daunting. However, the old adage proved true again: Never judge an (audio) book by its cover, even if that cover seems a bit bloated. Once hefted into a CD player, that daunting 32-hour commitment seemed a mere bagatelle. About 15 minutes into this fable, a listener is hooked by Susanna Clarke's brilliant tale of magic, as well as by Simon Prebble's flawless narration.

It is 1806, and the pedantic Mr. Norrell has been challenged to prove his worth as a practical magician. Before doing so, he makes his challengers, a group of theoretical magicians, sign a contract stating they will forever withdraw from the world of magic if he proves his powers to be genuine. Once he has secured his place as the only real magician in England, Norrell moves to London and begins an upward climb into the inner circles of society and politics.

Strange is a dabbler, a man with too few interests and no direction whatever, when a raggedy street magician predicts that he will be a powerful force in English magic. Norrell and Strange eventually join forces and then part as rivals, going down paths that prove one should not necessarily rearrange the natural order of people's lives -- or their deaths.

If you were never one for George Eliot or Dickens you may find the beginning a bit of a slog, as it calls to mind a serious historical novel, complete with footnotes. But if you're a secret Anglophile, you'll find yourself nodding approvingly to the sly, dry humor enhanced by those footnotes, which are presented with much scholarly imagination. Though her female characters are less fleshed out than one would like, Clarke's magical world is presented with enough detail to seem real, and her real world with enough whimsy to keep us entranced.

For instance, England's battles in the Napoleonic Wars are depicted in all their gruesome harshness. But then we have the bookish Norrell conjuring up ghostly ''rain ships" in his library, hoping such trickery will help vanquish the French Navy. Later, the more outgoing Strange joins the fray in Spain, hoping his magical powers will aid the English as they attempt to defeat the French.

The battles, much like Clarke's depiction of English life in the early 19th century, have been clearly and thoughtfully researched. In the middle of all that reality, we hear: '' 'Can a magician kill a man by magic?' Lord Wellington asked Strange. Strange frowned. He seemed to dislike the question. 'I suppose a magician might,' he admitted, 'but a gentleman never would.' "

It would have been easy for Prebble to lose his way amid the hundred or so characters in the nearly 800 pages of text, but he navigates this production with much assuredness and an array of accents. He understands that the book is, at its core, a comedy of manners. Prebble's full voice is altered to a delicate softness for young ladies of a certain breeding, or tightened to convey the snarkiness often heard in the costive Norrell. Prebble is as entertaining as the text -- an important factor when one is listening to an audiobook over the course of several weeks.

Audio Editions has been steadily releasing the unabridged mysteries from such masters as Agatha Christie, Nero Wolfe, and Rex Stout. Dashiell Hammett's ''The Thin Man" provides a rollicking ride as we step back into a time when the local cop could give you directions to the nearest speakeasy and political correctness was a far-off notion. Those who have seen the movies with Myrna Loy and William Powell know that this was Hammett's wittiest effort, and the least hard-boiled of his work.

The thin man is actually a McGuffin, a plot device to keep the story going. His absence forces the wealthy Nick Charles to put his gumshoes back on after years of living the good life with his young wife, Nora. But a young, pretty blonde who asked him to find her father may have a few secrets up her sleeve. She also has a shady family.

This text can easily stand on its own, but a stronger narrator would have made for an even more enjoyable experience. William Dufris seems mismatched to the material. His female characters never sound realistic. The result can be simply goofy, as when a character is supposed to be speaking with a mouthful of food.

Dufris has no problem conveying the sarcastic wit and sophistication of Nick and Nora, or the thick-headedness of a friendly but somewhat inept police detective. In fact, his straight narration is enjoyable. However, this is a story that screamed for a narrator with a quicker pace, a lighter touch, and a more distinct voice.

Rochelle O'Gorman is publisher and editor in chief of audiobookcafe.com, an online magazine featuring daily reviews, interviews, and articles relating to the audiobook industry.

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