Before singing the praises of Shaker, I want to point out that I “read” this on audio and the narration is by the one and only Dion Graham. When I loaded it up and heard his voice, I knew I was in for a good story. Graham’s work here is impeccable and perfect for the gritty urban flavor of this sometimes brutal crime novel.
Shaker is good. And supremely memorable. It starts with a big-picture Hollywood-esque prologue recounting the damage done to southern California by a swarm of nearly 700 small earthquakes followed by a big jolt, a 7.1 “shaker” that topples buildings and “grabbed the city of Los Angeles by the throat, and throttled it like a wolf on a weasel for a full twenty-two seconds.”
Five days into the clean-up comes Roy Cooper, flying in from the east coast to “pay a visit” to a man named Martin Shine. Cooper, we soon find out, is an errand boy who handles everything from moving furniture to tending bar to shooting people in the head. He’s good at what he does. Shaker would be a short story if Roy Cooper, after dispatching Shine, remembered where he had parked his car.
Instead, Roy Cooper’s life grows increasingly complicated. Roy a group of young black boys, “none older than fourteen, fifteen tops.” They surround a jogger, who is down on all fours, and he’s bleeding from a gash in the head. What happens in the next few minutes, recounted in detail, happens almost at a slow-motion pace worthy of Tom Wolfe (Bonfire of the Vanities). It’s quite the cinematic scene and I have no problem imagining the movie version of Shaker, but no movie will ever be able to pack in the backstory and detail that Scott Frank manages in these 335 pages (yes, I had to get a hard copy to see how his prose looked on the page).
Without giving too much away, the last thing Roy Cooper wants is attention. What he most wants is to slip back to the airport and return to his home on the east coast with every expectation that his work as an errand boy will go unnoticed. Instead, he becomes thrust smack into the middle of the limelight and is mistaken as a hero.
Just when we think that this might be a Roy Cooper novel, Frank starts throwing the curveballs. Shaker is a rotating-perspective story and everybody gets equal play—LAPD detective Kelly Maguire, a punk named Science, buffoonish mayor Miguel Santiago, and Roy Cooper’s onetime mentor, Albert Budin. Is Roy Cooper a hero? The mayor could use one. The victim in the attack that Cooper witnessed—and disrupted—was a candidate for mayor. Detective Maguire isn’t so sure about Cooper’s story. But her reputation and credibility are low. And the group of punks know full well that Roy Cooper is no saint—and they wouldn’t mind slipping into the hospital and taking care of business.
Frank does a number of things in Shaker that I liked—a lot. First, he lets the scenes breathe. He’s not afraid of extended dialogue—look no further than the conversation between Roy Cooper and Martin Shine before Shine is dispatched. To these ears, it all rang true. It’s Tarantino-esque. (Again, I give you Dion Graham. He injects veracity and weight into every conversation).
Frank also embraces extended passages of straight-up telling the story; the cinematic and omniscient camera at work. And he’s organized the backstories of some of these characters in a way that, by novel’s end, you have fully formed characters across the board. In fact, “back story” suggests something slight or minor. Hardly. If Roy Cooper seems like just another hit man at first, just wait a few chapters.
The story unspools in sometimes non-linear fashion. Toward the end, Frank yanks us back in time to give us an in-depth look at the relationship between Budin and Cooper. Once we know more, the story unlocks in magical fashion. Slow in spots? Yes. (And I liked the non-rush.) Heart pounding at others? Of course. Violent? Yes. The story builds to a rumbling, brutal climax at Dodger Stadium and, rest assured, Frank takes full advantage of the earthquakes he set in motion way back in the beginning, on page one.