Scott Frank’s Shaker

Scott Frank is a long-time screenwriter and more recent director best known for his screenplays for Logan and Minority Report (among other box office successes) as well as being the creator of the Neflix series Godless and The Queen’s Gambit. His first novel, Shaker, was published in 2016, and I became aware of it that year when a film critic (whose name I forget) for the Seattle publication The Stranger tweeted about it.

I recently read the 355 page thriller over the span of a few days, and had a mixed reaction to it. Frank created a propulsive and adult high-concept premise: a New York hitman named Roy Cooper comes to L.A. a few weeks after a damaging city-wide earthquake to kill a mob accountant only to unwittingly and somewhat mistakenly become a viral hero after being caught on video trying to save an elderly jogger from being mugged at gunpoint by four gang members. In a very twisty plot, the jogger turns out to be a mayoral candidate and Cooper’s unwanted hero status destroys his anonymity and a dangerous person from his past come looking for him.

Shaker works best as a darkly comic, cynical thriller. Cooper is a killer for hire, but in a rush to judgment echo chamber culture he is regarded as a brave hero. The city’s craven mayor is both relieved that his opponent has been killed, but is also fearful that he’s going to be rightly accused of holding this relief. Some of
Frank’s best dialogue comes from his awareness of this kind of hypocrisy in people, particularly with regard to one of the L.A. mayor’s staffers being an academic who displays far more empathy for the jogger’s marginalized killers than the murdered innocent victim.

Cooper is given a whole traumatic backstory, and the book flits between the high-concept present premise and the hitman’s tragic origin story. The book is unrelentingly grim in detailing Cooper’s dark childhood and adolescent. Anyone with half a brain is going to know a hitman has had a hard life. I don’t think Frank needed to basically write two novels in one to get this point across. This made me think of Tom Cruise’s character in Collateral, another high-concept hitman in L.A. premise, and how Cruise and his director Michael Mann summed up their character’s reason for being a hitman in a sentence or two. Shaker would have benefitted from his hard brevity. Frank’s earthquake premise also ends up having very little to do with the plot. While the novel does end on a few notes of compassion and solidarity, I was grateful to finish this nasty thriller. There’s been some talk that Frank is writing a sequel. I’m not sure I’ll check it out.

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