Friday, February 19, 2016

Shake It Off

Shaker: A novel Shaker: A novel by Scott Frank
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Traveling for work can be a real headache, but it’s especially bad when the city you’re going to is still recovering from a natural disaster.

That’s what hit man Roy Cooper encounters when he flies into Los Angeles for his latest job because the area was hit with a round of serious earthquakes that have disrupted utilities and traffic, and the city is still experiencing random aftershocks. Roy manages to take care of his business quickly, but he hits a snag when he stumbles into a group of young gang members assaulting a jogger in an alley. Wacky hijinks ensue during which get Roy shot, and the jogger is killed by a banger with the gun Roy just used to murder his own target. As he recovers in the hospital Roy learns that the jogger was a mayoral candidate, the incident was recorded by a witness, cable news is running the footage repeatedly, and the kid who killed the jogger got away with Roy’s gun.

Everyone mistakenly thinks he’s a hero who tried to help the jogger, but Roy knows that his employers won’t be happy that his face is all over TV. Plus, he’s still got a murder weapon in the hands of a gang member that needs to be retrieved. Roy has other problems in the form of a Kelly Maguire and Science. Kelly is a tough cop on the verge of losing her job for excess force and racist statements who thinks that his story is fishy, and Science, the kid with his gun, is desperate to save face because the video shows Roy punking him so he’s looking for a rematch. Meanwhile, the mayor of LA tries to cope with the political fallout of his rival being murdered as well as find the best way to spin events for the media. Roy just wants to get out of the hospital so he can try to clean up the mess and maybe see his favorite baseball pitcher try to break a record.

This is a debut novel, but Scott Frank is hardly new to the writing game. He’s a veteran screenwriter whose credits include two of my favorite film adaptations of books, Get Shorty and Out of Sight. He’s also written and directed The Lookout, a very good heist movie with a twist starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as well as another respectable adaptation of Lawrence Block’s A Walk Among the Tombstones featuring Liam Neeson.

So Frank knows a thing or two about crime stories, and the experience pays off here. The idea of a hit man getting waylaid by a gang in the midst of an earthquake ravaged LA is the kind of high concept that could make for a pretty good thriller in book or movie form. Frank actually digs a lot deeper into the history and personalities of Roy, Kelly, and Science so that all of them are fully formed characters, and he has more than a few things to say about the gaps between government and police policies versus the reality of life in a poor community dominated by drugs and gangs. This often seemed less like the crime thriller it appears to be and more like something that Richard Price or Dennis Lehane would do.

Roy in particular was compelling to me because he starts as this kind of blank slate that many hit man characters are often written as, but then we get a detailed history that turns into a parallel story that explains how he arrived at this particular moment. This turns into the sad and touching heart of the book.

Also, as a Kansas City area resident I enjoyed that Roy’s backstory is set here, but Frank does make a few errors. For example, you can’t be in Missouri and head east to Kansas City since it’s at the western edge of the state. Two characters committing crimes in Missouri are jailed in Kansas for some reason. A road is referred to as Route 435, but it’s actually an interstate highway, and referred to as I-435 or just 435 by locals, not Route 435. These are all minor nitpicks that didn’t hurt my enjoyment of the book, and I did appreciate that he got a lot right like naming a popular bar downtown and the Royals are always losing any game that Roy watches back in the day. (That’s a situation that has greatly improved though.)

Overall, this is a great crime novel that makes the most of its characters and their settings to tell a compelling story, and it builds to a climactic moment that manages to seem like the ending of a Hollywood blockbuster while simultaneously subverting a reader’s expectations as to how it all plays out. Whether it’s another movie or another book, I’ll be willing to check out more of Scott Frank’s work.

Also posted on Goodreads.

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