SHAKER by Scott Frank (Knopf)
In the wake of a monster LA earthquake, unassuming East Coast button man Roy Cooper arrives in town on a wet work assignment. After pulling the hit and leaving the scene, Roy wanders into the middle of a robbery between a gang of young black bangers and a popular Latino mayoral candidate. The would-be mayor is killed; Roy shot and hospitalized; the bangers scram with Roy’s gun.
When a video surfaces of Roy’s confrontation with the bangers, the press, and the current mayor, a feckless Antonio Banderas lookalike, mistakenly hail Roy as a hero. Not great for a hitman trying to keep a low profile – as Roy’s East Coast mob associates ominously warn him. Knowing it’s just a matter of time before the cops uncover his true identity, Roy discharges himself from hospital and starts hunting down the bangers to eliminate the witnesses.
Problem is: The punks are thinking the same thing, and green-light Roy.
The bangers are led by the intelligent and ambitious Science, who sees the media circus resulting from the would-be mayor’s death, as an opportunity to claw back control from the Mexican gangs, and assume legendary OG status for himself.
Complicating matters further is the cop investigating the murder of the mayoral candidate – the current mayor’s critics suspect foul play, that the robbery/homicide was in fact a political assassination. Kelly Maguire is a former gang division cop, busted down to shit work after crippling an African/American rapist/murderer in her custody. (The rapist/murderer’s colour being more important to the press than his heinous crimes.)
Plus there’s the vengeful ghost from Roy’s past: Albert Boudin, the psycho leader of Roy’s old murder-for-hire crew, who believes Roy is dead – at least until he sees the video of Roy vs. the bangers. Now Albert comes to town to settle scores with Roy, and kill anyone in his way.
Scott Frank is the veteran Hollywood screenwriter of Out of Sight, Get Shorty, A Walk Among the Tombstones, among others. As a screenwriter myself – who has enjoyed nothing even close to Frank’s success – I’m always curious to see how others make the jump to prose fiction. (I’m still holding out hope for a Shane Black novel; and the long-threatened Tarantino novel could be interesting, if only because QT may finally be forced to learn how to edit/rewrite.) Frank makes it seem effortless.
His style is laidback, cool, often funny; reminiscent of Elmore Leonard, whose work Frank has adapted successfully for the screen. Structurally, this is excellent stuff, as I’d expect from a veteran screenwriter. Roy’s backstory is revealed in flashback scenes as compelling as the active narrative; by the time the story ends, as his motivation becomes clear, Roy is an enormously sympathetic, even tragic figure. Characterization overall is equally tight. The scenes of Science and his crew of fucked-at-birth bangers recall Richard Price’s Clockers, and the kids from The Wire.
Shaker is an engrossing crime thriller veined with sly black humour, political satire, and social commentary. It reads like a movie, but no mistake, this isn’t just a screenwriter dusting off an old script for prose; shaker is very much a novel, and for me, the book of the year so far. (Adam Howe)