Man, oh man, I just finished this book by Josh Bazell called Beat the Reaper and it was so good, I started writing this review before the book’s back cover had slapped shut. That’s how fast I wanted to spread the word. Bazell is a first-time novelist but you wouldn’t know it from his assured control of pace, plot and dialogue in this hilarious and outrageous mafia comedy thriller.
The novel starts out with our protagonist, Dr. Peter Brown, getting mugged while watching a rat fight a pigeon in the snow on his way to work at Manhattan Catholic Hospital. Turns out Dr. Brown’s a lot like the rat and knows a thing or two about fighting himself.
Brown is really Pietro Brnwa aka Bearclaw, a former mob assassin who turned state’s evidence then went into witness protection and medicine to atone for his killings. Not that he’s suddenly turned into a Boy Scout. He calls a patient with rectal pain “Assman” and agrees to lick a pretty patient’s leg before she’s wheeled to surgery to get it amputated. He also eats Moxfane like potato chips (“Moxfane is the drug they give to bomber pilots who need to take off from Michigan, bomb Iraq, then fly back to Michigan without stopping. You can swallow it or use it to run the engine.”).
Of course, like the pigeon fighting the rat, people from his past just won’t stay down and keep coming back for more, no matter how bloody the result (very, in case you’re wondering). Bazell, who’s a real doctor in San Francisco, switches back and forth between the present and the past to fill us in—even exposition unfolds at heart-thumping speed—on how Brnwa got sucked into the mob in the first place and how it all went wrong. The action leads to a climactic confrontation in which Brnwa uses an insane, improvised lethal weapon that I’m pretty sure has never been used in crime fiction.
Bazell’s voice is fresh and scalpel-sharp, his prose vivid and cinematic. As Brnwa enters a pitch-black room, the author writes: “I recognized the sound of her instantly. The adrenaline jacked my pupil size…An impulse hit me. Kill. All around the room, knees, eyes, and throats lit up like targets in a shooting gallery.” Bazell definitely hit the bull’s eye with his debut so it’s no surprise to hear Leonardo DiCaprio has already snapped up movie rights. Other good news? Bazell promises Brnwa will be back in a sequel.
Nerd Verdict: Hard to beat this brilliant combination of thrills, humor and action