Beat The Reaper – Josh Bazell – Novel Review
The thing about first novels is that often the writer takes the oldest of advice: (write what you know!) and starts from there. Given that Josh Bazell is a doctor, it comes as no surprise that ËœBeat The Reaper’ is set largely in and around a major hospital in New Jersey. Nor should it be unexpected that the hero of the book, Peter Brown â€ sometimes known as Pietro ËœThe Bearclaw’ Brwna â€ is a doctor working in the hospital. What does come as a surprise is that Doctor Brown is also an ex-hitman for the Mafia, now in Witness Protection. The life of a junior doctor is hard enough, but when Brown finds himself recognised as The Bearclaw by one of the patients who promptly sets in motion a train of events that will inevitably lead to a showdown with Bearclaw’s one-time Mafia patrons, we’re primed for an out-and-out disaster.
In a nutshell, that’s the book. We get Doctor Brown’s increasingly chaotic and drug-addled day at the hospital, desperately juggling patients, surgery, sex, and telephone calls to Witness Protection. And at the same time, we get the backstory of The Bearclaw â€ how he became a killer, how he fell in with the Mafia, how he fell in love, and how he fell out with the Mob. Both stories come together in the finale, in which Doctor Brown has to rediscover the Bearclaw to take down his oldest friend.
‘Beat The Reaper’ opens fast, with an encounter between Brown and a would-be mugger to establish Brown’s tough-guy character and the location. Bazell chops back and forth between the two stories quickly enough to keep either of them from getting dull. The hospital sequences are played out with plenty of medical knowledge and a fine sense of snarky humour that pokes morbid fun at the US medical system, while the Bearclaw story develops with doses of violence and romance to keep us entertained.
Both the story lines are useful enough to sustain the novel, and it’s certainly an easy and entertaining read. However, the book is very clearly a first novel. Bazell relies on a few tropes so common they’re practically cliched in order to conquer the problems of handling the complex structure and pacing of a thriller. His main character narrates in first person present tense, and the medical/hospital situation is so very clearly drawn from Bazell’s experience that it distinctly overwhelms the Bearclaw backstory. Bazell also uses the first-person-present stuff to permit occasionally lengthy, sometimes intrusive authorial asides which are admittedly often very funny, but also serve as a means of covering otherwise uncomfortable transitions from one scene to the next.
The real problem with the book comes at the climax, which I can’t really reveal as it would be a massive spoiler. Suffice it to say that the reader’s suspension of disbelief takes a walloping good kick right in the gonads as ËœBearclaw’ Brown undertakes one of the most remarkably silly Ëœarming up’ sequences in the history of literature before confronting the obligatory Final Bad Guy. The weapon which Brown improvises is both outrageously pointless, and so very patently a piece of medical trivia which Bazell is exploiting for his own delight, that it defies useful description.
Having said all that: I enjoyed reading the book. It went quickly, and it was fun. Bazell handles his dialogue and his action sequences well, and while he never lets the story fall by the wayside, he still manages to build useful and interesting characters, and offer a solid sense of time and place. ‘Beat The Reaper’ is an entertaining first novel which showcases a writer with lots of energy, and a good grasp of the basics. Hopefully with his next novel, he’ll have worked off his dislike of the hospital system, and reined in his urge to play with obscure medical facts â€ in which case, we’ll really be in for a ride.
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