Friday, February 12, 2016

Book Review: "Shaker" by Scott Frank

Shaker reads like a movie, and that's not a bad thing. You can totally see the film version of this book playing out before your eyes.

This isn't too surprising once you learn that Scott Frank, the author, is an Academy Award-nominated screenwriter who also wrote and directed a film adaptation of a classic Lawrence Block crime novel. And while the film version of Shaker might help alleviate some of the confusion caused by a few characters too many, the book is an addictive, suspenseful, and surprisingly sensitive read worth savoring.

Los Angeles has just been hit by a pretty powerful earthquake which has damaged a lot of the major highways, left many buildings in disarray, and knocked out major cell service throughout the city. Aftershocks keep the city's residents on edge, and sometimes cause more damage. A few days after the big quake, Roy Cooper, erstwhile "errand man" for his New York criminal employers, is dispatched to LA to murder a shady accountant named Martin Shine. Roy isn't told what Shine did to incur his employers' wrath (if anything), but knows his job is to follow orders, not to question details.

Roy arrives in the city and does what he needs to. But he encounters a slight problem after the hit is complete: he can't find his rental car. He has apparently gotten himself confused wandering in the few blocks around Shine's apartment. Then his problems get worse, as Roy stumbles upon another crime in progress, as four young gang members are mugging an elderly jogger. Rather than do what he should, that is, get the hell out of there, Roy gets involved, and the next thing he knows, the jogger is dead and Roy is in the hospital.

It turns out the elderly jogger was a leading mayoral candidate, bent on solving the gang problem. The mugging, and subsequent murder/shooting, was captured on a bystander's cell phone video, so the media has branded Roy a hero. This doesn't sit well with a lot of people, including his employers, the gang members who feel Roy disrespected them, and a figure from Roy's past, who has a score to settle. And as the cops, including disgraced police detective Kelly Maguire (who has a bit of an anger management problem), try to figure out exactly who Roy is, he needs to get out of the public eye and finish what he inadvertently started.

Frank juggles a lot of different narrative threads in the book, and all but one ultimately are relevant to the plot. (There's even some flashbacks to explain what brought Roy to this point in his life, and they're pretty fascinating on their own.) There's some great action, some creepy violence, and some pertinent social commentary on what drives gang members to live lives of unrelenting violence, lives they know may ultimately lead to their own demise. While I found Roy and Kelly's characters really fascinating (and would have loved it if the book focused more on both of them), Shaker drifts from time to time, juggling too many different narratives, and I just looked forward to the plot returning to the story at the book's heart.

As you'd expect from a talented screenwriter, Frank is a pretty strong storyteller, and while the book may meander occasionally, it's tremendously captivating. A great addition to the thriller/crime genre, and hopefully Frank will continue writing books in addition to films.

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