Josh Bazell’s Beat the Reaper seems to have a lot going against it. There’s the laundry detergent inspired cover. The title sounds uninspired to my ear. Then there’s the plot summary seemingly designed around a 1-minute pitch – a medical resident at a hard luck New York City hospital is really —- wait for it —- a former mob hit man in the witness protection program. And there’s a Holocaust subplot. And sharks!
I was going to describe it as House meets The Sopranos. However, the book is also pretty funny (mostly the footnotes). So then I was going to describe it as Scrubs meets Analyze This, but it’s more intense than that would imply. So let’s stick with the first comparison, House/Sopranos.
The author happens to be a medical resident himself. Accordingly, the novel is full of great details about the medical profession that will make you want to stay clear of public hospitals for a long, long time. Bazell also slyly inverts our expectaions, making medicine sound like the criminal racket while making the hit man profession sound more like the science. For example, our protagonist Dr. Peter Brown (pssst…it’s not his real name) tells us:
Most bottled water in hospitals has 5 percent dextrose. This is to prevent the phrase “Liter of plain fucking water: $35″ from appearing on your bill.
Bastards! Meawhile, when choosing your next box of ammo rounds, you may want to consider this:
Conservation of momentum, on the other hand, is easy to do the math on. For example, if a bullet weighing 230 grains (15 grams, the width of a .45 bullet, which is 45 percent of an inch across) goes from the speed of sound (slow for a bullet) to a complete stop inside your body (much easier to achieve with a big bullet than a small one), then 15 grams of your body has to accelerate to the speed of sound to make up for it. Or 150 grams of your body to one-tenth the speed of sound, and so on. It’s much less demanding to think about.
The action takes place over a single day. Our sleep deprived doctor begins the day by hospitalizing a would-be mugger, and his day only goes down hill from there. To say much more about the plot would spoil the fun of reading about Dr. Brown’s very. very bad day. Suffice it to say that it is no wonder that the doctor’s bed side manner seems subpar, even by Dr. House’s standards:
“Jesus,” he says. ”For all I know I have cancer anyway.”
“You do have cancer,” I say.
“What do you mean?”
“I just read your biopsy results.”
“Jesus! Is it bad?”
“No, it’s fantastic. That’s why everybody wants it.”
Rest assured that any seemingly incidental (but always funny or interesting) medical, biological, or organized crime trivia that the doctor dispenses early in the novel will pay dividends later on. Perhaps the most implausible scene in the entire book depends on the reader having paid careful attention to a discussion of vestigial human anatomy. It’s this attention to plot and placing that elevates the book from a very well done pulp thriller to something more.
If you’re willing to suspend a little (or maybe a lot of) disbelief, Beat the Reaper is an action-packed and wildly entertaining novel. This is an excellent novel to have on standby for your first trip to the beach/pool. According to IMDb, the movie is coming in 2010.