Contagion!: The Shocking True Story of a True-Crime-Audiobook Accent Sponge : Monkey See What's the biggest problem with an audio book? The voice in your head, and how it becomes the voice coming out of your head.
NPR logo Contagion!: The Shocking True Story of a True-Crime-Audiobook Accent Sponge

Contagion!: The Shocking True Story of a True-Crime-Audiobook Accent Sponge

Listening to books: It's got some occupational hazards you might want to take into account. hide caption

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by Sarah D. Bunting

I have a problem. I founded an online true-crime book club, but believe it or not, that isn't the problem — it is highly unseemly, and bound to make my parents regret picking up the tab for my college education (I've still never read Hamlet), but the actual problem is that I prefer to consume my true crime via audio book. While it does make long trips in a teensy car without cruise control more palatable to listen to faraway detectives bungle a murder case, it has an unwanted side effect, to wit: at some point in the duration of the narrative, I will unconsciously but inevitably begin mimicking the book's narrator in my own speech.

I can't help it. It's an issue for me generally, this accent-sponginess. I grew up in Jersey, but somehow, I don't have an accent of my own — so it's as though other speech styles rush in to fill the void. A 45-minute conversation with a Louisiana friend leaves my speech studded with chicken-fried might-coulds and my-starses for a full day afterwards (and she doesn't even use these expressions herself); a conference call with my British boss and his IT team...if I don't learn to tone down the tally-ho-guvnah, I'll lose my job.

But the true-crime speech-pattern absorption is far more ridiculous, because it's impossible to explain without appearing bonkers — but then if I don't explain it, I seem even more bonkers.

Phony Italian accents and surprising Kris Kristofferson references, after the jump...

Take a recent road trip to Cincinnati for a wedding (...please!). I'd downloaded the unabridged version of recent true-crime hit The Monster of Florence. Douglas Preston and Mario Spezi's narrative is a corker, and it's read with gusto by Dennis Boutsikaris, whom you'd probably recognize as recurring defense attorney Al Archer on Law & Order.

The book, though written by an American, in English, is about a notorious Italian serial-killer case. Almost everyone in the book except the author is Italian; the listener naturally assumes that Preston translated the Italians' quotations into English. But just in case the listener doesn't assume that, Boutsikaris reads all the Italian speakers' dialogue with an Italian accent...the same way that Nazis in English-language films always speak to each other in German-accented English. And it's not just any Italian accent; it's the most stereotypical, Chef Boyardee, "that's-a one-a spicy meat-a ball-a" nonsense you can imagine.

When I emerged from the car in Cincinnati, I'd spent so long with Boutsikaris's accent that I found myself doing it without even really realizing it. "Sorry I'm-a late-a — got stuck-a in-a the tra-fee-chay!" "Buongiorno, bridesmaid-a!" One pair of giant white gloves away from turning into Super Mario, I was.

A similar thing happened last year when I downloaded John Grisham's foray into nonfiction, The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small Town. The book concerns a mentally imbalanced man named Ron Williamson who winds up on death row for a murder he didn't commit, so as you can imagine, Ron has a lot of dialogue — and Craig Wasson, a Bill Maher doppelganger probably best known for his lead role in Body Double 25 years ago, dips Ron's lines in bourbon and tops them off with crazy cheese before reading them. I listened to the book while commuting, and my co-workers came to accept, if not enjoy, my daily impressions of Kris Kristofferson getting kidnapped, angrily, by pirates (angry pirates). By the time I got to the epilogue, I'd grown sideburns.

And after listening to Will Patton's reading of Mikal Gilmore's classic genre memoir, Shot in the Heart, I found myself using the same sorrowing, whispery Western twang Patton uses. The Gilmore family — Mikal is of course the brother of Gary Gilmore, who famously petitioned the state of Utah to go on and carry out his death sentence — is a benighted one, even their lighter-hearted stories tinged with rue, and Mikal Gilmore frequently ends anecdotes with bleak sighs of "I guess I'd always known it" or "in my heart, I realized the truth"...which is how I came to feed the cats, slowly, the patter of kibble in their silver bowl like the cold rain of November, while intoning, "Your is a secret I cannot live with. And yet. Live with it I must."

Sarah D. Bunting, chief cook and bottle-washer at Tomato, is in the middle of the newest Ann Rule — in book form, thank goodness.