- Buy the book
Reviewed by Jeff Giles
t first glance, Josh Bazell’s “Beat the Reaper” looks like just another action thriller – the type of book you might pick up in an airport during the six weeks a year when James Patterson isn’t pushing a new novel. The American printing has one of those horrible, generic covers that’s supposed to scream “ACTION!” and the synopsis contains the words “doctor,” “hit man,” “with a past,” and “24 hours.” Plus, there’s the title, which sounds like it’s probably been used by at least a dozen other “cool” and “relentless” novels. (Amazingly, it hasn’t, at least not according to the first three pages of Amazon’s search results, which is about all the research this writer is willing to do.)
Appearances can be deceiving, though – and they certainly are in this case, because “Beat the Reaper” is an instantly gripping thrill ride, equal parts action and humor, with a love story and a revenge plot or three thrown into the bargain. The fact that it’s Bazell’s debut novel (and that he dreamed it up during his medical residency at UC San Francisco) is enough to make you want to end your own pathetically lazy life – but not until you finish the book; once you start it, it’s exceedingly difficult to put down.
“Reaper” tells the story of Peter Brown, a doctor in Manhattan’s worst hospital who begins the book by fending off an inept mugging attempt with the sort of casually precise violence that makes these books so much fun. (It also contains the first in a series of progressively more informative and hilarious footnotes, in which Brown educates the reader about everything from the bone structure of the lower leg to the life story of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross.) Peter Brown, as it turns out, was once known as Pietro “Bearclaw” Brnwa, and flashbacks through what he did to earn that nickname – as well as the very unusual path he took to MD status – make up half of the book’s story. The other half follows Peter/Pietro on a pretty miserable day at the hospital, during which he’s identified by a former “associate” who rats him out to an enemy, injected with various unsavory fluids, and hopped up on an incredible cocktail of prescription drugs. As you may have already guessed, past and present eventually collide in the book’s final act, when Bazell pulls out all the stops for a sequence that may actually leave you feeling physically ill. (Or so we’ve, um, heard, anyway. We’re men.)
Yes, these are deeply familiar ingredients, and if you’ve read your share of action thrillers, you’ve gotten to know plenty of protagonists with shady pasts, encyclopedic knowledge of martial arts, and just a few short hours to save themselves/their loved ones/the world – but they’re familiar because when they’re used by the right author, they really work, and Bazell is just such an author. He approaches “Beat the Reaper” as the literary equivalent of Jason Statham’s “Crank” movies – the action is thick and ludicrous, running from World War II-era Germany to Brighton Beach and, in one particularly memorable chapter, a shark tank. It’s the kind of stuff you should roll your eyes at, but it’s too much fun to do anything but keep flipping pages to see where Bazell will take Peter next. And there are more pages yet to come, apparently; this is merely the first installment in a planned series, with a Leonardo DiCaprio-led movie also on the way. Read “Beat the Reaper” now, so you know what all the fuss is about later.