There's something for everyone in Laurence Shames' Key West Capers series. Each book is a unique mix of comedy, crime drama, thriller, and romance, set in modern-day Key West, Florida. The stories each stand on their own, and are very loosely connected, sharing one common character throughout (except for book 5, Virgin Heat): elderly, friendly, sociable, retired mafia consigliere Bert "The Shirt" D'Ambrosia. Surviving characters occasionally do come back in other books; when they do, their context is quickly summarized. You don't have to read them in chronological order, and you don't have to read any previous books in the series to enjoy this one.
Nacho Unleashed is the 14th book in the Key West Capers series, and the seventh I've narrated and produced in it, after Key West Luck, Tropical Swap, Tropical Depression, Virgin Heat, One Strange Date, and One Big Joke.
Key West Capers books often feature refugees of the northeast, and Nacho Unleashed is no exception. Approaching 30, Rita Janneau has tried many different careers and relationships, but none of them have inspired any passion. So she abandons New Jersey for Key West, hoping that a drastic change in environment will help her figure out what it means to be an adult in 2019. She finds an affordable place to live in a cluster of rental cabins that share a common area with a pool. That's where she meets Albin, a retired architect who fled the miserable weather and family drama of coastal Massachusetts in the 1970s, and settled in Key West because it was one of the few places where a gay man didn't have to be closeted in order to feel safe. Most mornings, he and Rita play a philosophical tennis match, sitting at opposite ends of the courtyard, eating vastly different breakfasts, talking about the challenges they face which seem alien to the other.
After taking some time to decompress from New Jersey, Rita finds a job at a storefront tasting room for a boutique distillery named Wreckers Rum. As hostess, she serves rum samples to visitors, explains the special process behind each one, and sells bottles of rum to those who want to take the experience home with them. The distillery is in a separate building on the other side of the island from the tasting room. Both are owned by Carlo Costanza, a gruff, aging mobster who moved to Miami after serving time for tax evasion. Back home in Massachusetts, he used to run the fishing industry outside of the law, helping to keep his friends and neighbors employed despite oppressive regulations. By coincidence, Carlo happens to be Albin's estranged older brother; the two haven't spoken in decades, presumably because of Albin's open homosexuality and Carlo's very public involvement in organized crime.
Rita soon notices that the tasting room isn't selling much rum, so she starts asking around, trying to figure out how Carlo can afford to keep a licensed distillery and a commercial storefront tasting room open and fully employed. When she asks Albin about it, his old friend (and Carlo's former colleague) Bert "The Shirt" D'Ambrosia overhears, and begins his own investigation. Why would Carlo get into the rum business, when all he knows is the fishing industry? Where did he get the money for it, after the IRS cleaned him out? And why can't Albin and Carlo have a sit-down and work things out after all these years? As Bert attempts to broker an uncomfortable family reunion for Albin and Carlo, two IRS agents show up to take a closer look at Carlo's suspicious-looking business. They have the same questions as Rita: Why doesn't Wreckers Rum need to make money, and what happens when Carlo runs out of operating cash?
The narration style in Nacho Unleashed is unique to the Key West Capers series. In addition to the third-person limited narrator, a large portion of the book is narrated by the internal voice of Bert's pet Chihuahua, Nacho. Ideally a second actor would do Nacho's narration, but that was beyond the scope of the project, so I had to create two narration characters that sounded different enough that it would be instantly clear which one was currently on duty. I modeled Nacho's voice after John Candy's portrayal of half-man, half-dog Barf in the Mel Brooks film Spaceballs. It's a perfect human portrayal of a dog's transparent emotions and intentions. Since Nacho is an actual character, he would sound warmer and more colloquial, which meant that the invisible third-person narrator needed to go in the opposite direction -- more articulate and straightforward than usual. The vocal model I used for this was Rod Serling, from his intros and outros in the old TV show The Twilight Zone. I'd done some Rod Serling imitations in the past just for fun, so I knew it was within my range. I didn't want to sound too much like an imitation because that would be a distraction, so I took it down a few notches by avoiding Serling's telltale vocal habits, and removing his mild Trans-Atlantic accent. I think the result is exactly what I intended: a good narration voice that starkly contrasts with Nacho's warm familiar tone.
Most of the rest of the characters are variations on voices I've developed for other projects.
Bert "The Shirt" D'Ambrosia is the secondary character at the heart of the Key West Capers series, so the voice has to really work. He's in his 90s, 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. Bert's voice has slowly evolved over the series, and I like where it is now -- more contemplative, slower-paced, and intentionally ambiguous in that lawyerly way that old mafiosos often are.
Charlie Ponte is another series regular, and one of my favorite voices to do. Across the series, Ponte is a bad guy, but never the villain. I like to think of him as a shark; a deadly predator who only hunts opportunistically, and never tries to bite what he can't eat. Mafia characters tend toward two archetypes: the businessman, and the psycho; the best characters straddle the gap and lean back and forth between both extremes, never fully committing to either -- that's Charlie Ponte. The original model was the great voice actor Tom Spackman, specifically his bounty hunter character from Star Wars: The Old Republic: raspy, slow, calculated, and simmering with violent potential.
Rita is from New Jersey, but she's a lot less dramatic than the Jersey girl voices I've done in previous books. The traditional vocal model is Marissa Tomei, but it was a lot easier for me to use Anabella Sciorra instead. The passion and potential for explosive "ya think ya fuckin bettah'n me?" moments is definitely there, but remains below the surface. Rita is a down-to-earth middle class chick who is disillusioned with the bullshit of her generation; she is not a mafia princess.
Blake is the perpetually sleep-deprived manager of the tasting room. His vigorous aversion to challenge, risk, and discomfort has prevented him from achieving any sort of meaningful accomplishment, and rendered him permanently single and sexually frustrated. He's now wandering into quarterlife/midlife crisis territory, perpetually sleep-deprived, lazy but not incompetent. What better vocal model for this than Bill Murray circa 1980?
Anthony is the chief distiller, and is mysteriously close to Carlo. He's a stereotypical modern geek: shy, socially unpracticed but not inept or unaware, and passionate to the point of obsession about one topic: distilling rum. I struggled to find a good voice for Anthony because I wanted to make him different enough from Blake. His physical description made me think of Jon Heder as the title character in the film Napoleon Dynamite, so that's the vocal model I used.
Rocco and Max are Carlo's two ostensibly stereotypical mob enforcers, though their story is more complicated than I can explain here without spoilers. Rocco I based on Michael Imperioli's character Christopher Moltisanti from The Sopranos -- a model I often use for a muscled henchman. Max is a variation on the voice I developed for Ziggy Max in Virgin Heat, which I modeled after Ray Liotta's portrayal of Henry Hill from Goodfellas. They should sound almost comically tough when on duty, and much more ordinary and everyday when they're in private.
Carlo Costanza reminded me a lot of Paulie from Virgin Heat, so I decided to reuse that voice. This is another one I based on a character from Goodfellas, specifically Paul Sorvino's brilliant low-volume high-impact portrayal of Paulie Cicero.
Albin is a new voice for me. I felt he needed to be extremely articulate in his speech and expressive with his face. Instead of making his voice musical with a lot of variance in pitch, I decided to give him a more even tone with variance in volume instead of pitch. This forces Albin into a medium-slow pace, which fits his contemplative character perfectly. I had two vocal models for Albin: one was someone I knew many years ago, an older gay man who used to hang around my group of friends at a seedy cafe late at night. He had an Italian name and claimed to have mafia connections, though he also claimed to be psychic, so take that as you will. The other vocal model was Robert Preston's character Toddy from the film Victor Victoria. The guy I knew and the character Preston played were eerily similar. The vocal style is colorful (not musical), dramatic, and perfectly enunciated, with no lisp.
Mikel Shintar is Carlo's silent business partner, a reclusive chemist who works out of the distillery. His character is described physically much like Martin Shkreli, the "pharma bro" hedge fund manager who has been in the news for various things over the past few years, from insider trading to vastly increasing the price of life-saving medicine. The author's direction was to give him a slight east European accent, which made me think of John Lithgow's performance as Dr. Emilio Lizardo from the film The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension. I didn't want to get that crazy with this character voice, though, so I toned it down quite a bit. The accent is vaguely Russian. A true Russian accent should be very even, almost a monotone; Shintar's voice is more dramatic in an arrogant and condescending way.
The engineering challenge for Nacho Unleashed was keeping the volume from being too varied between the chapters narrated by Nacho and the invisible narrator. Nacho is louder, the narrator is consciously lower volume, but I needed them to come closer to center for the finished audio. The first thing I did was switch the compressor to a limiter on the ADC, and turned up the make-up gain; this pushes down from the top, and up from the bottom.
To make Nacho sound more like a character than a voiceover narrator, I used the same mic technique for his narrative that I do for dialogue, which is toward the top of the mic. This gives it more treble. For the invisible narrator, I always aim for the bottom of the mic, which gives it more bass. That makes it easier for listeners to distinguish between the two.
The voices I did for Carlo and Bert were lower-volume than those I did for Rita and Albin and most of the other characters, so in addition to changes in the limiter and make-up gain on the ADC, I had to make a lot of manual volume adjustments during post. This also massively screwed with my background noise reduction process. I'm used to being able to do a non-destructive noise reduction pass, then mildly gate below the noise floor, but with such a wide variance in volume this was not possible -- Carlo's dialogue, in particular, was getting mangled. The solution was to go heavier on the noise reduction sensitivity while going lighter on the volume reduction, then compressing above the new noise floor, then doing very light gating after that to push the noise floor down more. If you crank the volume way up, you should be able to hear a lot of breath detail in Bert's and Carlo's dialogue -- snorts, sighs, intentional breaths.
I also had to do something different for Nacho's chapters. The invisible narrator should never have breaths because you shouldn't think of him/it as a person/character, so you won't hear any breaths or big mouth noises in my narrative. If the pacing is good, you should get the impression of a breath during silent pauses, without actually hearing it. Nacho, however, is more of a character voice, so initially I had a lot of big breaths and sighs to deal with. Since he's using his internal voice for the book -- obviously dogs can't speak, and we don't imagine taking breaths when we're listening to an internal monologue or voiceover -- I decided I had to remove all of his breath noises as well. During his more impassioned monologues, it was challenging to cut and fade without sounding artificial.
In the scenes were Carlo and Rocco have dialogue, I had to make Carlo a little higher pitched because he and Rocco share a similar accent. Part of this is on the performance side, not just in making Rocco lower-pitched, but also slower-paced, and with different vocal habits from Carlo. Pitch adjustments during editing were usually 1/4 step. Anything beyond that tends to distort the audio, but it depends on the pacing. Fast-paced dialogue is easy to pitch up, slow-paced dialogue is easy to pitch down.
I got sick with bronchitis about halfway through recording, and was limited in how much work I could do. In Charlie Ponte's first scene, he has a bad head cold, so I thought it would be really cool to re-record all that dialogue in my "sick voice." I did record it, but I never added it to the finished audio because I was so far behind schedule at that point. I often had to choose between being a little too phlegmy, and a little too dry -- decongestants and expectorants tend to dry out the vocal cords. It didn't help that I was violently coughing almost non-stop for several weeks, ruining my vocal stamina. There are a few chapters later in the book where some of the stress and damage from coughing is slightly audible in the performance, but for the most part I was able to edit out the worst vocal artifacts.
Nacho Unleashed is unique in the Key West Capers series, due to its dual narrators. The Nacho chapters are particularly entertaining if you're at all a dog person. But aside from that, all of the usual elements are there: the witty ingenue, the old crime boss with a secret sense of nobility, Bert and Charlie playing verbal chess, and an action-packed showdown.