"The Maid's Version": Murder in the Ozarks

The new novel by the author of "Winter's Bone" gets a down-home, yet subtle performance in audio

By Laura Miller

Published September 19, 2013 7:00PM (EDT)

Brian Troxell is one of those audiobook narrators with a no-nonsense, all-American sort of voice; he projects mightily, but stops short of blaring. He sounds like a smart guy you might bump into at Home Depot, the autodidactic history buff who built his own deck. Troxell narrates a lot of nonfiction (and some hard-boiled crime fiction), and he's eminently suited to the crisp, straightforward presentation of information.

So I wasn't quite prepared for the way Troxell's voices softens and twists around the Ozark cadences required by Daniel Woodrell's novel "The Maid's Version." (This is far from the first Woodrell novel Troxell has narrated -- though Emma Galvin read his best-known book, "Winter's Bone" -- just the first one I've listened to.) The novel is short, but complex, describing the effects of a catastrophe on a small town that is more tightly knit than it at first appears. In 1929, an explosion ripped apart a dance hall in West Table, Mo., killing 42 and scarring the psyche of the community for generations to come.

The novel's narrator is the grandson of a woman who believes she knows who caused the explosion, but she's equally convinced that justice will never be served. Alma Dunahew lost her beloved sister Ruby, the siren of West Table, in the blast, and blames the local bank president, Arthur Glencross, who also happens to have been her employer at the time. Alma is the maid referenced in the title, but this economical novel (which in audio form clocks in at an astonishingly concise four hours and change) tells far more than one townsperson's version of the events leading up to the explosion. It's a whodunit of sorts, but most of all "The Maid's Version" is a portrait of the intricate ways class affects life in seemingly simple, small-town America.

Southern accents can be perilous for actors; I've known Southerners to scathingly dismiss a performer's regional twang as inauthentic, only to find out later that the actor actually hailed from the region in question. I can't honestly say how accurate Troxell's mild Missouri drawl is, but it convinced me. Spinning out Woodrell's distinctive blend of lush metaphor and brisk storytelling, it's a voice that conjures chill mountain mornings, autumn leaves and woodsmoke. As Woodrell cycles through the life stories of various victims of the blast, Troxell subtly modulates the drawl to match the character.

One peeve, which is with the audiobook's director rather than Troxell himself: In this recording, as in far too many audiobooks, the pauses signaling a break within a chapter -- usually indicating a change of point-of-view -- are either too brief or even downright nonexistent. In "The Maid's Version," a short book with many characters, this can be especially confusing, with scenes seeming to run into each other in a fashion Woodrell obviously didn't intend. It's a minor flaw in what is otherwise a fine performance of an excellent book, but both author and narrator deserve better.

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Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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Audiobooks Daniel Woodrell Fiction The Listener Winter's Bone