BOOK REVIEW: Medicine, Mafia Style!
Beat the Reaper: A Novel
Written by: Josh Bazell
House meets The Sopranos—there’s your Hollywood pitch line for the debut novel of talented newcomer Josh Bazell. But it’s so much more than that: part medical mystery, part action-adventure thriller, part character study, Beat the Reaper deftly explores the scope of revenge, loyalty and one’s capacity for redemption. We are introduced to the novel’s protagonist, a New York City doctor, as he’s getting mugged on his way to work. But rather than acquiescing, he expertly dislocates the mugger’s arm, smashes his nose in and takes his gun. Peter Brown is clearly no ordinary doctor. Left to fend for himself at the age of 14 after the vicious murder of his grandparents, Pietro Brnwa takes up karate and a fateful friendship with David Locano, aka Skinflick, whose father was a lawyer by day, a mobster by night. Initially attracted to the mafia for personal retribution, Brnwa descends deeper into the Locano family and their ties, and finds that he is disturbingly good at his job. A perfectly orchestrated series of events leads Pietro into murder, a test of his friendship with Skinflick and the threat of jail. Instead, he ends up at dingy, dilapidated Manhattan Catholic Hospital as Dr. Peter Brown, a member of WITSEC, the U.S. Marshal’s Service Witness Security Program. Peter’s anonymity comes to a crashing halt when he treats a blast from the past, in the form of terminally ill patient Eddy Squillante, who recognizes him as the erstwhile “Bearclaw” Brnwa. As long as he can keep Squillante alive, he staves off some angry mobsters looking to get reacquainted. To do so, he must navigate through a sea of other patients, a shady surgeon assigned to Squillante’s case, and external forces looking to ensure that he fails. Oh and by the way, he has eight hours. (Why is Peter known to the mobsters as Bearclaw? You’ll have to read the book and find out… it’s downright incriminating!)
Pietro Brnwa is a unique, memorable character in the best tradition of detective fiction heroes. Not one you’d call warm and fuzzy, he ascribes himself as “God’s original asshole” and his sycophantic medical students as “two cups of human misery in short white coats”. He has a short temper, a snarky aside for most everything and everyone that crosses his path, and generally looks at the glass as half empty. But Pietro also has a defined moral code of ethics. His very reason for joining the Mafia—to avenge his grandparents’ senseless death—is practical, not glamorous. He won’t kill women or children, as evidenced by his refusal to kill the sister of the man that sold his grandparents to Auschwitz. And he manages to show a tender side with the only woman he’s ever loved, and who plays a tragic role in the final showdown between his past and present. More importantly, Brnwa, as Peter Brown, is an excellent doctor. Sure he has plenty of insults for fellow physicians, no patience for patients, and crunches on Moxfane tables to stay awake enough for rounds. But he also cares enough to make time for a frightened cancer patient awaiting surgery, to retrieve a lost well-meaning elderly patient with dementia and to perform an impossible surgery on the dying Mob messenger that’s been sent to warn him. Okay, that last one was a necessity.
On top of the intricate action, mind-bending medicine and humor, the book’s style is immensely enjoyable—sexy, sleek, fast-paced, and a little too cool for old school. Bazell unfolds the plot cleverly with side-by-side storylines. Peter Brown’s impending peril is told compactly over the course of the eight hours that interweaves his reunion with old friends with an interesting medical mystery and a rather unfortunate incident with an Assman and a needle. All in a day’s work. Concomitantly, Pietro Brnwa’s story transpires over a more protracted period of time, and the reader absorbs the tragedies that befell Pietro from his early days in the mob through to the deal that lands him in witness protection, learning what makes him tick along the way. The past merges seamlessly with the present to culminate in an ending so shocking and imaginative, you will want to have an anatomy textbook, not to mention a strong stomach, to piece it all together. Interspersed throughout are little factoids and medical footnotes that add a rich third dimension to the novel’s flow and to our protagonist’s hilariously sarcastic wit. Did you know that scrub suits are reversible, that some of the most prosperous pharmaceutical companies had a shameful history of slave labor at Auschwitz, that you can’t run DNA tests from urine, that surgeons will use some pretty superfluous silly vocabulary to avoid saying “head up” or “head down” in surgery, or the real reason that Tony Soprano’s cover as a garbage consultant is ironic? Neither did I. Rarely does a thriller afford you the opportunity to pick up some knowledge while you’re being entertained, and for that, Beat the Reaper gets the ScriptPhD.com seal of approval!
As if all of this isn’t enough to get you excited, the book is currently being adapted for film by the same team of screenwriters that brought you Ocean’s Thirteen. There are even rumblings of Leonardo DiCaprio playing Peter Brown/Pietro Brnwa/Bearclaw. So go out and please support a local bookstore in picking up a copy today!