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 (except for book 5, Virgin Heat): 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 third book in this series I've narrated, the first two being Key West Luck and Tropical Swap . Tropical Depression was written six books (and about 10 years) before Tropical Swap, but that doesn't matter in terms of understanding or enjoying this audiobook.
Tropical Depression is about Murray Zemelman, also known as The Bra King, a Jewish man in his mid-50s from New Jersey who made a fortune in boutique brassieres in the wake of the calamity of the bra-less 1960s. During a midlife crisis, he divorced his wife of many years, Franny, and traded up for a hot young bra model named Taffy. In the years that followed, Murray became increasingly depressed. This being the 1990s, he went to his psychiatrist, Dr. Max Lowenstein, and was prescribed Prozac. As the story begins, the Prozac doesn't seem to be working, but while Murray is attempting suicide by asphyxiation in his garage, he has an epiphany and drives toward Florida and eventually Key West. When he gets there, he rents a lavish penthouse near the shore, calls his second wife to break up with her, calls his business partner to break up with him, and then calls his first wife to attempt a reconciliation. While relaxing in Key West, Murray stumbles into Tommy Tarpon, a Native American fisherman and seashell salesman who is the last of his tribe. The two become friends. With nothing stressful to occupy his mind, Murray starts to get restless. He suggests that he and Tommy go into business together to start a casino on his tribe's deserted island off of Key West. That's when Miami mobster Charlie Ponte and corrupt state senator Barney LaRue get involved and try to steer the casino toward their own greedy interests.
For Key West Luck, I used a Patrick Bateman narration style, and for Tropical Swap I modeled the narration after Chevy Chase from Fletch. Tropical Depression is a much different story with a much different main character, though, and required a style that I've never done before. It was described (and demonstrated!) to me by the author as being culturally Jewish. Basically, it is slower, lower, more contemplative, and connects through punctuation with lazy endings, as though to communicate to an intimate audience that the narrator is not done with his story just yet.
Murray Zemelman's voice was modeled after a young Alan Arkin. Specifically I had his performance as Yossarian in Catch-22 in mind. He starts the book depressed, and slowly comes out of it as he gets acclimated to Key West. Once the plan to start the casino is in motion, Murray becomes manic; his character voice changes, becomes more upbeat and emotional, less even-toned. Murray is quick-thinking and rarely deliberates before speaking, so I reduced the amount of silence I usually put between another character's dialogue and his.
Tommy Tarpon is a 40-ish Native American who alternately looks the part for the tourists when he needs to sell them souvenirs, and looks like he wants to look if pushed into being "The Indian" by someone he doesn't like. The model was Chief Dan George, most famous for his role as Lone Watie in The Outlaw Josie Wales. His deadpan delivery and patience with his timing is truly masterful, and I did my best to capture that same pacing and inflection in Tommy Tarpon.
Florida State Senator Barney LaRue is a silver-haired, surgically-improved, slimy, greedy, corrupt politician who knows exactly how to weasel his way into or out of just about any situation. In my mind, I pictured Grey Davis, the former governor of California. However, the voice I chose was more of a Florida southerner. There is something manipulative and dishonest about the southern accent, I think. I always feel like I'm being lied to or manipulated when a southerner is using that slow and musical voice with me. If you don't want to punch LaRue in the face by the time the book's in its third act, then I've failed to portray him accurately.
Franny Rudin is Murray's first wife. They were married a long time, until his midlife crisis. It's been several years since then, and she's moved to Sarasota and become comfortable with her new life. She's not really bitter, but there's a small vein of expectant disapproval or light sarcasm that runs through her dialogue with Murray. Franny is strong, mature, straightforward, and if this were a movie she would be played by Kathy Bates -- and that's who I used for the vocal model.
Dr. Max Lowenstein is a Jewish psychiatrist who takes the science aspect of his work very seriously, even if he is a bit inept in the actual implementation of those concepts in real life. He is of course worried about Murray's sudden and drastic lifestyle change, and cautions Murray not to take more medication than he's prescribed. Eventually he has to check up on Murray in person, afraid that he's failed his patient and unethically renewed his Prozac prescription. This was an interesting character voice. I based it off of some voices I've done before for authoritative figures, but I softened it up a bit, made it lower and slower, and gave it a sense of habitual contemplation. Lowenstein analyzes everything and understands everyone's motivation in every situation, but is comically unable to analyze himself or solve even the simplest of his own psychological problems. I also based him loosely on the psychiatrists I've had in the past, with an added hint of Oliver Sacks.
Murray's business partner Les Kantor is a little insecure, has a nervous stomach, and is so used to relying on Murray to make the big decisions that he feels lost on his own. Murray has total faith in Les to continue the business without him, but it takes a lot of effort for Les to believe him. I modeled Les after John Candy; comically worried but secretly capable.
Bert "The Shirt" D'Ambrosia is the secondary character at the heart of the entire Key West Capers series (except for Virgin Heat), 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.
Much to my delight, recurring pseudo-bad-guy Charlie Ponte is a major character in Tropical Depression. This is a voice I developed for Key West Luck, so I had to keep it consistent in Tropical Depression. The dialogue style in the older Key West Capers books is much different than in the newer ones (Shot On Location and beyond): each character's accent is integrated into the dialogue. While I understood that Ponte was from Philadelphia, I felt that his personality in Key West Luck was more patient and calculating than the usual NY/NJ/Philly accent would allow for. Besides, so many characters across the series have NY accents that I couldn't do it for all of them. Also, not everyone from that broad area has an accent, or the same depth of accent. If I'd done Tropical Depression first, I might have made a different choice for Charlie Ponte's voice, but I'm glad I didn't. I used the great voice actor Tom Spackman as a model; raspy, slow, calculated, and simmering with discontent. This voice works so much better for Ponte than any other I could have come up with, and makes his conversations with the slippery Barney LaRue alternately comical and insidious. Across the series, Ponte is a bad guy, but never the villain. Giving him a great voice makes him someone you look forward to experiencing again in another audiobook.
It's hard to single out one book in a series as being superior, but if I were to do that with Key West Capers as I've narrated it so far, Tropical Depression would be the best. The friendship between Tommy and Murray and their quest to overcome political corruption and mob tactics, and Murray's obsession with resurrecting his relationship with his first wife while trying to bury the sins of the past and overcome depression and anxiety, all add up to a fantastic tale told in a unique dramatic style. If you've been following the series so far, you absolutely have to listen to Tropical Depression. If you like the books but didn't like my narration style in Key West Luck, then I guarantee you'll find Tropical Depression more enjoyable.