Review: Josh Bazell’s ‘Beat the Reaper’

Read this book or the shark dies!
Read this book or the shark dies!

So, I’m in Border’s the weekend before last, looking for something to buy because they sent me a coupon and I feel obliged. I happen across a table of books labeled ‘Books You Might Have Missed’ and, lo and behold, it is full of books I’ve never read or wanted to read, like Glenn Beck, who’s a fat-headed tool.


At the top of the heap was Beat the Reaper, the debut novel from a guy named Josh Bazell. According to the dust jacket, Josh is a doctor and a writer and is currently living in California, working on his second book. Good for him.

Now, I’ve read books by lawyers, and a couple by doctors and they were okay. But my history with ‘Staff Recommendations’ has been a little spotty (Brad Metzler’s Book of Lies comes to mind – suckfest!). Therefore, I flipped through the book, read a couple of pages and bought Spiderman: New Ways To Die. Totally worth it.

Then last week’s coupon showed up in my e-mail, and I headed out to Border’s again to help stimulate the economy. And what do you know, I found myself at that table, looking at Beat the Reaper again.

So I rolled the dice and hit a jackpot.

Beat the Reaper is the story of first year resident, Dr. Peter Brown, and the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day. How terrible? Well, it starts with a mugging and ends with mass murder.

Terrible enough? No. How about this…

This is the day Dr. Brown’s past catches up to him.

Prior to becoming a doctor, or even Peter Brown, our ‘hero’ was once a mafia hitman, Pietro ‘Bearclaw’ Brwna.  After a botched hit, a misunderstanding or two, and tossing his best friend out of a sixth floor window, Brwna turned state’s evidence and entered into the witness-relocation program.  The past catches up to him in the form of Eddy Squillante, a cancer patient and lowlife bastard.  Upon recognizing one another they make a deal:  save Eddy’s life in exchange for his silence. The only problem is that Eddy’s a fuckhead and  sells Peter out anyway.

This book rocks.

The story bounces back and forth between Peter the doctor and Pietro the hitman. We come to learn how he got into the life and why he left. The doctor bits are fantastically funny, as Brown describes as clinically cynically as possible how modern medicine works for and against us through the use of footnoted ‘asides’. For the most part, the device works and they’re some of the best lines in the book.

I devoured Beat the Reaper in one marathon sitting – which I wouldn’t suggest doing as the lack of sleep from reading all night makes you cranky the following day.  But I did, the book is simply too hard to put down.  From the openening line right down to the last, you want to know what happens next.  The action and sarcasm are well paced and balanced.  Dr.  Brown’s present predicament is flat out better than his past, and if I had a gripe with the book it is that the flashback scenes aren’t as strong as the doctor scenes.  I suspect it was easier for Josh, a doctor, to write about Peter, another doctor, than it was to write about made men.

I will agree with some reviewers that think the plot tests your ability to suspend belief. Many of them thought it ridiculous that a hitman would become a doctor. I, however, had no problem with this change of vocation. Although a far cry from hitman, I once worked with an engineer that decided to become a doctor when his fiancé dumped him (he has since returned to engineering). People change. That’s life. I did however have an issue with the timeline – a 17 year old hitman – and that witness protection would place him in the same city as the people looking for revenge. But that’s nitpicking. The truth is you don’t read this kind of book for believability.

You read this kind of book for the following (in no particular order)

Sex! Some, but not enough. Which is surprising considering the prevalance of the word ‘pussy’.

Violence! A bunch! And the creepy climax will have you squirming out of your skin.

Gangsters! Duh. He’s a hitman.

Sharks! I shit you not.

How about I put it this way…

I’m a big fan of Charlie Huston. He writes violence and mayhem as well as anyone out there, probably better than most. He’s unapologetically brutal. Read the Hank Thompson trilogy and see what I mean.   Bazell, to his credit, writes a pretty good Huston.

My advice – use the Border’s coupon on Beat the Reaper. Spiderman can wait.

**Side note: Movie rights have been purchased by New Regency – Cool!

**Side note 2: Film is said to be a vehicle for Leonaro DiCaprio, not cool.  Peter is a thug.  Leo is a pussy.

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