Fans of Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum series know Ranger as a manly man who carries a gun, dresses entirely in black and calls the heroine "Babe" with just the right mixture of condescension, adoration and lust.
How odd then to learn that this hunk's voice, a sound beloved of audiobook fans, emanates from an actress with green eyes and masses of blonde hair. As narrator, Lorelei King plays Stephanie, too, as well as everybody else in the book, including a 300-pound former prostitute named Lula. But her men are her greatest achievement. "It's what I call the hero's voice," she says, dropping her tone dramatically. "Ranger I made slightly Hispanic, although we're discovering that he was raised in Jersey."
"Babe," she says, and watching this done in the recording booth is the audio equivalent of that scene in The Crying Game, when the gorgeous and seductive Dil is shown to have external genitals.
King is in Manhattan to record the latest novel in the Stephanie Plum series, Twelve Sharp, for Audio Renaissance. The American-born actress who now lives in England has narrated more than 200 audiobooks, including all of the Plum novels.
Her work on the last book, Eleven on Top, earned King AudioFile magazine's Earphones award. "She's able to highlight all the quirkiness and color of the characters, and yet she restrains the performance so it's never over-the-top," says the magazine's editor, Robin Whitten.
That subtlety also earns praise from Laura Wilson, director of production at Audio Renaissance: "I don't want to piss off other women narrators—but you know it's not always easy for women to do men," she says "When women pretend to be men, or men pretend to be women, they often go overboard, which can make the characterization sound mocking."
King left the States 25 years ago, "with $400 in my pocket. I was headed for either Paris, which I liked, or to Yugoslavia, which is where my family is from. So I stopped in London. I was planning to stay three days. I'm now a British citizen."
Although she adored being read to as a child, King didn't plan on growing up to be a narrator. She lucked into an acting career while in London, planning to work as a film editor. "I was friends with a director who was in London and he was doing a show of Kurt Weill music. And he said to me [plummy English accent here], "Dahling, you look like a German whore. Can you sing? And I said, 'well, I can actually.' So he stuck me in the show."
She has numerous film and TV credits, including the part of U.N. Ambassador Jean Kirkpatrick in a BBC-TV production. "On my passport my occupation is listed as 'actress,' and that's how I see myself," King says. "One of the great joys of being an American working abroad is that I have the opportunity to work in many media: film, television and voiceover."
The first book she recorded was a collection of horror stories, though she can't remember the title or the year (she believes it was sometime in the late 1980s).
"I finished in less than half the time they'd allotted—which led me to believe I might have a knack for it. The producer was so happy, he took me out for a very expensive lunch. That I remember."
Born in Pittsburgh, and having lived in Arkansas and California, King has a relatively uninflected American voice with a precise diction more common 20 years ago than today. Stephanie Plum sounds just like her. Although Evanovich's heroine is from New Jersey, King thought a regional accent might "get old in a hurry.
"Some voices I hear and I think if I was married to that, I'd put a pillow over their face until they stopped kicking."
An Audience of One
This spring King was on a panel at the Bath Literature Festival about "the art of the audiobook." The group included Sir Derek Jacobi and the uber-grammarian Lynne Truss. "All agreed," King says, "that narrating well is a knack, something you're born with, like being double-jointed. She adds, "The audiobooks panel was sold out. And it just tells you there's an audience out there and they are devoted."
When she's working, though, she doesn't think of an audience, but of a single listener. "The wonderful thing about this medium is the intimacy," she says. "Amateurs make the mistake of reading to the room, but you're only ever reading to one person."
King tells me she cherishes Evanovich as a writer, because "I like to laugh." In the new novel, when Grandma Mazur farts in her leather hot pants, it took Lorelei 20 minutes to stop giggling and get past it. "And then she says something," the narrator recalls happily: " 'Who stepped on a duck?' "
While she sounds the embodiment of the characters she portrays, King doesn't try to be them. "I'm not a Method actor, although I sometimes wish I were."
Of all Stephanie's characteristics, the most mysterious and desirable is the ability to eat her cake and not wear it, too. This from the last Plum novel, Eleven on Top: "I ran through the store gathering together some basic foods—bread, cheese, Tastykakes, peanut butter, cereal, milk, Tastykakes, eggs, frozen pizza, Tastykakes, orange juice, apples, lunch meat and Tastykakes."
"How can she stay so thin," I ask, "if all she eats is cake and pizza?"
"I asked Janet about that once," Lorelei remembers, "and she said, 'It's fiction.' "
While in New York, the actor also interviews Evanovich for the star turn that will garnish the Twelve audio. In the recording booth together, the two women begin to crack jokes.
"You don't look any different than the last time I saw you," purrs King. "How do you do it?"
"Surgery,' Evanovich says.
They are so happy to be together they keep turning their heads to look at each other, which causes problems with the microphones.
Soon they are talking about Ranger, Stephanie's man of mystery.
"When we started out, Ranger was a lot shorter," says Evanovich. "Ranger's gotten a lot taller over the years. We get a lot of letters asking about Ranger, and they ask things like, you know, does Ranger have chest hair, and when is Ranger's birthday? And my answer is, you know, he has chest hair if you want him to. He's fiction."
King asks, "When you hear a narrator do the book, do you ever shriek and think, 'No, that isn't what I had in mind at all' "?
"Yeah," Evanovich says, "but never with you. And that's why I use you with all of my books now."