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When Chief Inspector Wexford manages to make a dream come true by going on a tour in China, little does he expect that it will be anything other than relaxing. However, first of all, someone apparently falls off the boat during a river tour, then Wexford keeps bumping into a little Chinese lady with bound feet, who apparently has something to tell him. When he returns to the UK, he begins to think that it was all a hallucination due to too much green tea. Then one of his fellow passengers from China is found murdered and Wexford is forced to investigate - could the death be linked to something that happened when they were in China?
The Speaker of Mandarin is a Wexford novel that appealed to me for more than just the fact that it is a Wexford novel - it is based, albeit partially, in China, where I spent a good part of my life. As such, it is interesting to hear the author's take on travelling in China, particularly back in the early eighties when the book is written. To hear the book read by Wexford himself, or at least the actor who plays him - George Baker - is an added advantage for me. I have listened to audio books before going to sleep for as long as I can remember - I have always had difficulty in getting to sleep and audio books always help me to relax. But is this particular audio book any good?
I think it is safe to say that this is not the best Wexford novel that Ruth Rendell has written. The Chinese background aside, the story is actually pretty mundane and I really felt that Rendell took the opportunity of an exotic backdrop as an excuse to tell a rather lacklustre tale. It isn't awful, but I didn't really find any of the characters particularly inspiring - in fact, we don't really find out a great deal about any of them. When the ending came, I couldn't bring myself to care all that much about these rather one-dimensional characters.
The other problem is that there is a rather derogatory attitude towards the Chinese people that comes out in the book. Obviously, back in the early eighties, the Chinese were still recovering from the Cultural Revolution and the attitude towards foreigners was that they must be followed and kept separate from ordinary Chinese people at all times. Rendell probably suffered from this over-management herself - at least I presume that her novel is based on a trip she personally made - and she has reacted by building a 'them and us' barrier between the Chinese and foreigners. This is perfectly understandable, but it does, nevertheless, come across as old-fashioned and a little bit rude in these times.
The audio book is read by George Baker, who plays Wexford in the television shows. It is pleasant to hear his familiar voice, with its comforting burr. There is just one problem. No-one taught him how to do an authentic Chinese accent and I know exactly how one should sound. Baker manages to make a mockery of a Chinese accent - lots of letter ls instead of letter rs - 'are you leady?' (ready) - and it really grated on me. I don't think he meant to take the mickey, but that is what it ultimately sounds like, and I found it uncomfortable to listen to. Apart from that, I had no problem with Baker's reading of the story. His narration is excellent, and he doesn't try too hard to do a woman's voice, unlike some audio book narrators - yet it is always obvious when he is supposed to be a woman - it is all in the tone of the voice, I think. I would gladly listen to any more audio books that he narrates, provided that he doesn't have to do a Chinese accent again!
This is an abridged version of the book, and lasts for 3 hours, which covers two cassettes. I have read the unabridged book, but many years ago and so cannot comment in detail on what has been cut down on and what hasn't - however, all the basic story is there and that is what is important.
I managed to buy this very cheaply from the Works - I think I spent about £2. Listen2online.co.uk currently stocks it for £3.99. I would usually recommend buying the CD version - cassettes are on the way out of course - but I haven't been able to source a site that sells it as a CD. If you would prefer to read the printed version, then you will need to shop around - it seems that it is out of print at the moment. So recommended, if you can get hold of a copy.
There were some things about Chief Inspector Wexford's trip to China that he could never have dreamt of. That an old woman would haunt him from one city to the next. That a man would be tragically drowned. Or that, back in England, he would be investigating the murder of one of his fellow tourists.