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Monday, January 5, 2009

“Beat the Reaper” by Josh Bazell (Reviewed by Robert Thompson)

Order “Beat the ReaperHERE (US) + HERE (UK)

AUTHOR INFORMATION: Josh Bazell has a BA in writing from Brown University and a MD from Columbia University. He is currently a medical resident at the University of California (San Francisco) and is working on his second novel. “Beat the Reaper” is Josh’s first novel and has already sold in over twenty countries.

PLOT SUMMARY: Meet Peter Brown, a young Manhattan Catholic doctor with an unusual past that is just about to catch up with him. His morning begins with the quick disarming of a would-be mugger, followed by a steamy elevator encounter with a sexy young pharmaceutical rep, topped off by a visit with a new patient—and from there Peter’s day is going to get a whole lot worse and a whole lot weirder, because that patient knows Peter from his other life . . . when he had a different name and a very different job.

The only reason he’s a doctor now is thanks to the Witness Protection Program—and even that can’t protect him from the long reach of the New Jersey mob. Now he’s got to do whatever it takes to keep his patient alive so he can buy some time . . . and beat the reaper…

CLASSIFICATION: From the publisher: “Not only will Beat the Reaper be compared to Quentin Tarantino’s films, Grey’s Anatomy, and Chuck Palahniuk, it’s also the most original and entertaining debut thriller you’ll read this year and announces the arrival of a writer in the spirit of Elmore Leonard, Carl Hiaasen, Jeff Lindsay, and the aforementioned Chuck Palahniuk.” Let me just add that the medical parts of the book are reminiscent of a number of medical-themed television shows like ER, Scrubs, et cetera, while the crime noir/pulp fiction parts brought to mind Charlie Huston, Duane Swierczynski, A History of Violence and a little bit of Scott Sigler. There’s even some Michael Chabon in there as well :)

FORMAT/INFO: Page count is 320 pages divided over twenty-four chapters. Narration is in the first-person exclusively via the protagonist Peter Brown with the narrative alternating each chapter between the present and the past. The narrative is also frequently interjected with footnotes like Susanna Clarke’sJonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.” “Beat the Reaper” is self-contained, but a sequel is already in the works and I can easily see an ongoing series starring Peter Brown.

January 7, 2009 marks the North American Hardcover publication of “Beat the Reaper” via
Little, Brown and Company, while the UK version (see inset) will be released February 5, 2009 via William Heinemann Ltd (see inset).

ANALYSIS: From the moment I started reading “Beat the Reaper”—which opens with the protagonist Dr. Peter Brown brutally, efficiently and humorously taking out a mugger, and footnotes about the fibula and how removing it doesn’t really affect a person’s ability to walk—I knew I was in for a wild ride. And from there, things just get a whole lot crazier starting with a colorful cast of characters in Duke Mosby, Assman, Skinflick, Osteosarcoma Girl, and the incompetent Dr. Friendly.

Even crazier is the plot which jumps back and forth between the present-day and Peter’s current job as a first-year intern at Manhattan Catholic, and his past life when Peter Brown was actually known as Pietro Brnwa, aka “Bearclaw”, a noted hitman for the New Jersey mob. Of the latter, readers will get to learn about the protagonist’s grandparents getting killed by mobsters as part of an initiation ritual; Pietro ironically joining the mob himself; getting revenge against his grandparents’ murderers; becoming a hitman; finding—and losing—the love of his life Magdalena; being betrayed by his best friend; and entering the Witness Protection Program. All really good stuff—particularly a standout scene with man-eating sharks!—but what really takes the cake is what happens when Pietro’s past finally catches up with him in the hospital, and how far he’ll go to survive …

As for Pietro himself, he’s quite the interesting character, not just because of the life he’s led, but because of the way he thinks—at times, he offers some incredibly wise insights—his dark sense of humor, and the ironic twist that he’s a former hitman now turned doctor whose job is to save lives. And of course there’s his tough-guy, yet likeable narrative voice:

Let me tell you about revenge. Particularly murderous revenge. It’s a bad idea. For one thing, it doesn’t last. The reason they tell you revenge is best served cold is not so you’ll take the time to get it right, but so you’ll spend longer on the fun part, which is the planning and the expectation. For another thing, even if you get away with it, murdering someone is bad for you. It murders something in yourself, and has all kinds of other consequences you can’t possibly foresee.”

On the flipside, “Beat the Reaper” does suffer from a few minor issues, which aren’t unexpected for a first novel. For one, the beginning of the book can be a bit confusing with all of the footnotes—which are sometimes funny and sometimes informational, but not always necessary—and the narrative jumping around between the past and the present. Secondly, the narrative structure can get a bit tiresome after several chapters. Granted, the setup does help build the novel’s suspense, but I thought Josh could have mixed things up a bit and also tightened up the plotting. Thirdly, there’s a lot of foreshadowing in the book, some of it really good and unexpected, and some of it not so good. Finally, because “Beat the Reaper” moves at such a breakneck pace, I thought the author cut a few corners like the development of Magdalena and Skinflick as characters and Pietro’s relationship to both, his life as a mobster hitman, and Pietro’s adjustment to the Witness Protection Program. I also thought Josh’s prose and dialogue could have used some work, but that’s something that will improve the more he writes. As to the rest, it’s just a few minor issues like I said, and they shouldn’t interfere with the reader’s enjoyment.

CONCLUSION: If not for Charlie Huston’sThe Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death” and Duane Swierczynski’sSeverance Package”, Josh Bazell’s debut novel would be the best thriller I’ve read since starting Fantasy Book Critic. As it is, “Beat the Reaper” still ranks amongst the finest the genre has had to offer recently, and introduces a protagonist in Peter Brown who could potentially have the same kind of impact as Jeff Lindsay’s Dexter Morgan. In short, Josh Bazell is definitely a new author to watch and “Beat the Reaper” is a must read for anyone who likes their thrillers violent, wickedly funny, and shocking…


darbyscloset said...

I have so been wanting to read this book! Thanks for the review!
darbyscloset at yahoo dot com

Robert said...

No problem Darby :) I think you'll have a blast with the book. Enjoy!

Laszlo Lambchop said...

I know it's two years too late to comment on this post. But this is a really good read. Very weird but entertaining :)

Robert said...

It's actually pretty good timing Lambchop, since the sequel was finally announced:

"Wild Things", to be published on February 8, 2012. I can't wait!


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