Money Talks is a mystery novel that chronicles the months leading up to the murder of a narcissistic, bombastic New York City real estate kingpin named Robert Maxx, who bears a striking resemblance to Donald Trump circa 2007. That's not a coincidence, but the book was written several years before Trump took office, so this is in no way a political story. And no, the murder of Robert Maxx toward the end of the book is not a spoiler -- that's explained in the prologue.
Mystery is not truly a genre; it is a method of telling a story. Any kind of story on any kind of topic -- even non-fiction -- can be told in the style of a mystery. Standard novels begin with a lot of potential energy, then continue to build it until it becomes kinetic energy at the climax. In other words, the story begins with the cause and leads up to the effect. A mystery inverts the formula: it begins with the effect, and traces the plot threads back to the cause. It's possible to use both of these methods to tell a story by driving two related plotlines in opposite directions. Such stories require good ideas, dedication to intense focus, and masterful execution... and that's Money Talks. In one direction, the murder of Robert Maxx; but by which one of the many motivated suspects? In the other direction, Maxx' ghostwriter (and the book's first-person narrator) David Collins, who will do anything to help his ailing ex-wife, hopefully rekindling their relationship in the process.
In the beginning of the story, Robert Maxx agrees to write another bestselling book for a big New York publishing house. He won't write it himself; he needs a ghostwriter, and he already has someone in mind: David Collins, who ghostwrote an autobiography for an abhorrent but successful sports agent. Maxx admired David's ability to frame the book's subject in a positive light without lying. To Maxx, that kind of spin-doctoring is a valuable quality in a writer. Maxx makes David a terribly disadvantageous offer; it's a too-small percentage of the advance, and the contract states that Robert Maxx can fire David at any time with no compensation. There's no negotiation; this is the standard contract he offers all his ghostwriters, and it's take-it-or-leave-it. David would like to turn it down, but his ex-wife, whom he's friendly with and is considering trying to be romantic with again, is diagnosed with an unusual illness that affects her nerves. The only effective treatment is extremely expensive. So David Collins agrees to write the book with Robert Maxx, mortgages his Manhattan apartment to pay for his ex-wife's medical treatments in the meantime, and the adventure begins. The rest of the book is episodic, with a near-bankrupt Robert Maxx trying desperately to buy Rockefeller Center with other people's money. His personality and suspicious accounting practices repeatedly get in the way of closing the deal. As Maxx continues to strike out with investors, David is forced to change the book's theme in order to keep the project alive.
The author is Laurence Shames, whom you know from the Key West Capers series of romantic suspense novels. There's less humor and more drama than the Key West books, and the narration style is different (first-person past tense), but if you like Shames' other work, you're almost certainly going to enjoy Money Talks.
The narrator is David Collins, a 40ish freelance writer in the middle-class part of Manhattan who's lived the false dream of the fiction author: He had an agent and a book contract with a big New York publishing house. His debut novel never achieved escape velocity from the midlist, so his fiction had to be put on hold while he paid the bills with ghostwriting work. At the same time that his novel fizzled out, so did his marriage to Erin, a Julliard graduate who lived the false dream of the concert musician: She did well in the big piano competitions, but other people won, so she had to put her ideal career on hold while she paid the bills as a piano teacher.
For David's voice, I had John Cusack in my head because he played a very similar character in a somewhat similar story: Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (in fact, I'd describe Money Talks as a cross between that and Wall Street). However, Cusack can't drop his Chicago accent no matter where his characters are from, so I found it difficult to use him as a perfect vocal model.
Erin is delicate, precise, poised, and fearlessly quiet. I imagined her as Audrey Hepburn without the trans-Atlantic accent.
Robert Maxx was obviously modeled on Donald Trump, but he was a much more difficult vocal model than I'd anticipated. Trump, as of this writing, is in his 70s. His voice is worn out from a lot of public speaking, and he loses his cool almost instantly in the face of adversity. That's not Robert Maxx. So I went back to the 1980s on YouTube and listened to Trump's voice in old interviews, and was shocked at the overall difference between the younger and older personas. Trump's younger voice was very high-pitched, his tone soft but confident, and his diction laser-sharp. He did not slur words, he spoke at a slower-than-normal pace that showed he was thinking while speaking, and did not fear or honor interruption. He never seemed rushed or hurried or in any way affected by anyone who interviewed him or interacted with him on camera. When he was done talking, he sat perfectly still, with good posture, and didn't fidget or squirm. Everything about the man was calculated to the millionth decimal place and flawlessly executed, from his voice to his body language to his clothes and of course his hair. If you'd said in 1982 that someday Trump would be president of the US, no one would have laughed. Still, though, that was not Robert Maxx. But if we go between then and now, from the late 1990s up to about 2007, we see a Trump who has aged forwards but matured backwards. He hasn't yet begun to throw public tantrums, hasn't yet taken up the habit of finger-wagging at every reporter who asks a tough question, but now he's sometimes crude, inconsiderate. Public attention used to be a dalliance, but now it's an obsession. He used to want to be admired; now he wants to be a spectacle. He's begun to stop caring about his calculated image, or perhaps he sees that image as a burden -- too boring to get the media coverage he wants. He's still calm, but he's begun to simmer under the surface; he's more animated now, but still letter-perfect in his diction. His speed and inflection alternate between fast-and-dismissive, and slow-and-powerful. And that is Robert Maxx.
Trip Cambell is a coked-up Wall Street hedge fund investor. If that's not Charlie Sheen, I don't know what is.
Mandy Lockwood is a finance journalist on a cable TV channel. I used real-life cable news finance commentator Maria Bartiromo for the vocal model, except I made Mandy a little breathier.
Carlton Phelps, as the nervous, tortured, pale accountant was, in my mind, a role made for Bob Balaban. I like the work I did for Phelps' voice, but I would absolutely love to hear Balaban play this character someday. (If you get all your friends and co-workers to buy this audiobook, maybe it'll happen!)
Paul Hannaford is always selling something slowly. He's David's literary agent, and to David's disappointment, he actually seems to be pretty good at it.
Marcie Kanin is the editor at the big publishing house that David is working with to write a book under Robert Maxx' name. She's seen the boom and the bust of book publishing, and knows that the good old days are never coming back, but why not still try to get a good story out there now and then anyway? Haggard but hopeful, excitable but quick to sober. She's literally every book editor at every publisher I've ever worked with.
Jenna is Robert Maxx' serious, no-nonsense, whip-smart assistant-in-chief. She's tall, thin, wants to be honest without betraying anyone, and her lines were always a pleasure to read, especially in the later chapters. I based her voice on the one I developed for Liana in Bride by Contract.
I used NY Senator Chuck Schumer for the vocal model for Arthur Levin, the stern, strong, but but gentle old real estate lawyer.
For the old mafia boss Victor Magnola, I found yet another old mafia boss voice somewhere inside. I thought I'd done all I could do, but there was one more in there. This one was full-tilt Lawrence Tierney.
Caitlin Kilgore, the beautiful young TV starlet who is somehow dating Robert Maxx, struck me as a lot like Uma Thurman circa Pulp Fiction.
Matt Gaston, the "addicted to everything" young TV star who was recently dumped by Caitlin, makes the kind of barely-non-violent public scene that you'd expect from James Dean.
There are a few other minor characters, but they're voices I've done before.
Bottom line: Money Talks is the most versatile, demanding, challenging, and in-depth performance I've done since The Hero, and if you're even slightly into mystery stories, I guarantee you'll like it. The last six chapters are worth sticking around for even if you're only lukewarm on it up until that point.