The Key West Capers series, written by Laurence Shames, is a highly entertaining set of crime caper stories set in modern-day Key West, Florida. They are a mix of comedy, crime drama, thriller, and romance; there's something for everyone. You don't have to read any other books in the series to enjoy this one. Each book is a standalone story with the same setting and one common character throughout: elderly, friendly, sociable, retired crime boss Bert "The Shirt" D'Ambrosia. Surviving characters occasionally do come back in other books; when they do, their context is quickly established through comedic summary.
This is the second book in this series I've narrated, the first being Key West Luck. However, Tropical Swap was actually written before Key West Luck. Again -- this doesn't matter in terms of understanding or enjoying Tropical Swap.
Tropical Swap is the story of a vacation "home exchange" that goes in an entirely unexpected direction for both exchangers. A 40ish couple from New York, Meg and Peter Kaplan, exchange their West End Avenue apartment for a nice new house on the outskirts of Old Town Key West. During their first night there, someone throws a coconut through a front window, with a threatening message inscribed on it. A little investigation reveals that the married but recently separated owners of the house, Benny and Glenda Bufano, are connected to the Mafia. Meanwhile, in New York, a Dirty Harry-like FBI agent vows to bust up a mob-related Wall Street insider trading operation without the support or knowledge of the Bureau. While he's tailing a woman who appears to be illegally passing stock information to a mob-connected broker, he sees her get into Benny Bufano's Florida-registered car. Back in Key West, Glenda Bufano shows up at her house, completely unaware that the Kaplans were on a home exchange with the Bufanos. And that's where the fun begins.
In Key West Luck, I used a Patrick Bateman narration style, but Tropical Swap did not have the same kind of intense insight into the characters' desires and obsessions. The humor was more external than internal. Therefore, I modeled my narration style after Chevy Chase from Fletch.
The character voices in this book were some of the toughest I've ever done because so many of them have the same or similar New York City accent. I know that people from New York City insist that there are dozens of slightly different accent variations among different boroughs and other places that the rest of the world insists are also New York City, such as Staten Island, Long Island, and Brooklyn, but let's be realistic -- they're pretty much all the same accent, especially for an audiobook performance. I mean, we're not talking about the difference between Mexican and Iberian Spanish.
Bert "The Shirt" D'Ambrosia is the secondary character at the heart of the entire Key West Capers series, so the voice has to really work. He's in his late 80s, and has been long retired from northeastern old-school mafia life. Mostly he's calm and slow, but there's still a tiny spark of anger that arcs whenever something unjust or unfair happens. As models, I used two men whose acting careers are dominated by these kinds of roles: Lawrence Tierney and Steven Van Zandt.
Benny Bufano's vocal model was Danny DeVito. Specifically I listened to clips from his performances in The War of the Roses and It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia. Benny's voice has more of a flavor than an accent because I wanted to have room to be able to show a difference between his cold mob facade and his real personality.
Glenda Bufano's vocal model was Marisa Tomei from My Cousin Vinny. It sounds easy to do, right? Try it, though, and you'll find out why she won the Oscar for that role; Marisa Tomei is a brilliant actress with phenomenal control over her vocal performance. Fortunately, Glenda's character supports that kind of dramatic inflection to the point that it is impossible to take it too far (that is, after I learned how to take that that far). However, just like with Benny, Glenda has a different persona (and therefore voice) when she is talking to her Mafia boss father than when she's dealing with other people. The challenge with Glenda was not just getting the deep New York accent right (and I'm sure it could still be better), but in clearly differentiating her from Peter Kaplan. The main issue was pitch, because Glenda is at the top of my range, and Peter has a tenor voice. To make it more distinctive, I raised the treble, lowered the bass, and raised the pitch by a half step or so for most of Glenda's dialogue. The extra treble gives her a little sibilance, which is a signature female vocal quality (in English, anyway).
Peter Kaplan's model was Woody Allen from Annie Hall. Mild, pervasive anxiety is such an integral part of this guy's life that he'd be lost without it. There's a big difference between mild long-term anxiety (a "chronic worrier"), and panic. When you're portraying someone who always worries about everything that could possibly go wrong, you have to constantly reign it in, otherwise you'll end up shrill and panicked by the time you're done reading a line of dialogue. Peter doesn't "freak out" very often. He just sort of sees these prophecies of doom, and then calmly but quickly explains them in a highly detailed and controlled stream of consciousness. He isn't even outwardly afraid of the catastrophic outcomes he's imagining; he's resigned to the fact that this terrible fate is before him and he must be patient while it slowly manifests.
Meg Kaplan's model was Diane Keaton from Annie Hall. Total yoga-posing vegetarian space cadet. Her marriage to Peter keeps them both from going crazy, like they're on opposite ends of a seesaw of sanity. Peter sees doom before him at every turn; Meg sees cosmic miracles shaping their lives in special ways. When Peter sees evidence that his catastrophic projections are coming to pass, his anxiety goes up a few notches. When Meg sees a fortunate coincidence, she gushes about the vast beauty of karmic destiny. Occasionally, the two happen at the same time.
Frank Fortuna used to be a standard Mafia tough guy, but since he moved to Florida, he's tried to make himself seem more respectable to his neighbors in Naples. For a vocal model, I chose James Darren ala Vic Fontaine from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Just a hint of an accent, and a carefully clipped pronunciation as a crutch to prevent himself from slipping into the slurred New York gutterspeak he grew up with.
Mel, the dirty old man next door to the Bufano residence, has neither teeth nor tact. It took a little while to figure out how to get my mouth to make the right "toothless" sounds without being totally unintelligible.
Freddy is described as having a "real Key West Conch accent." Try finding a reference that reliably and completely describes that. Hell, try to find one that even attempts to describe it! No, really, go ahead, try -- I'll wait right here while you conduct your futile search. I ended up using the various New Orleans accent variations as a model, but went lighter on the "southern" and heavier on the "Boston" where appropriate. As many times as I've been to Key West, I've never noticed a distinctive local accent. Probably because the majority of the "locals" are immigrants from eastern Europe; and the few Conch-accented people I encountered, I probably figured were just Southerners who'd been away from home a long time.
Carlos Guzman I imagined as Joaquim de Almeida from... well, anything he's been in, but I had Bucho from Desperado in mind.
Lydia Greenspan didn't really have a vocal model. I decided that she needed to be alto because Meg's voice is soprano. I didn't give her an accent because I had enough trouble making Peter and Glenda aurally distinct, and she wouldn't have sounded right with an accent anyway. I varied her pitch and inflection enough to show that she's female, but her attitude throughout the book is one of a teenage girl who is deeply thrilled to be doing something naughty but can't help but spend all her effort trying to mute it.
FBI Special Agent Lou Duncan was designed from the start to be Morgan Freeman. But how the hell do I get my voice to go that low? By getting closer to the mic, using my Horace Hampton voice from Deathwish World, and taking the pitch down anywhere between 1 and 1.5 steps with Audacity's Change Pitch effect -- that's how.
The only difference between FBI Special Agent Andy Sheehan and Police Inspector "Dirty" Harry Callahan is the caliber of his handgun. There is actually a wealth of nuance in Clint Eastwood's inflection. Even with one word, such as "Bravo" in For a Few Dollars More, the varied inflection in those two syllables is what makes that character distinctive. Eastwood doesn't get a lot of respect as an actor; maybe it's because people aren't paying much attention to the brilliance of his delivery. And that's not gonna break his heart.
Lastly, there is a minor FBI expert character with a long speech in a one chapter. Basically he's giving a presentation on the modern Mafia to a group of FBI agents. I wanted to show two things with this character: That this subject was intensely fascinating to him but unbearably boring to his audience, and that he was reading verbatim from a speech he spent weeks perfecting in Microsoft Word and then copying into the presenter notes in his PowerPoint deck, one slide at a time. I could have whipped out Dan Aykroyd for this one, but I prefer to save him for emergencies. Instead, the vocal model was the legendary Robert Picardo ala his Emergency Medical Hologram from the otherwise awful Star Trek: Voyager.
Tropical Swap is every bit as entertaining as Key West Luck, in mostly the same ways, with some stylistic differences in the story and the performance. It's a fun, humorous, romantic, easily-followed tale that is guaranteed to leave you in a better condition than it found you.