This was a wicked delight to read. The initial idea of mixing medicine and the mafia seemed a little unlikely but the result is a gripping, witty, well-written page-turner. It indulges in instances of brutal violence, goes into graphic detail about the bloodier aspects of human anatomy, exposes personal holocaust histories, dabbles in recreational chemistry, isn’t scared of an occasional explicit sex scene… and lets rip with some bitingly bitter observations on modern medicine, relationships and society. Just my kinda thing.
The hero is a junior doctor in a chaotic New York hospital, hiding from the wise guys via the Federal witness protection plan. All is going swimmingly (apart from patients bringing lawsuits, wandering off, losing limbs, etc), when he’s suddenly recognised by an old mob associate. In his previous existence, the Doctor was a hitman. He’s trying to make amends for those previous actions by healing the sick. But now they know where he is, the Doctor’s previous employers and gun-toting compadres would like a word. Several words. All of which are likely to end unpleasantly for him…
How he came to be in this situation is told in flashbacks, with the action alternating between his past as a criminal hitman and his present predicament. The writing is stylish and snappy, threaded through with bleak and black humour. The author uses wee footnotes to lift the lid on medical mishaps and misunderstandings about the mafia, which I’d normally find irritating and interrupting. But in Beat The Reaper these extra details add authenticity to some of the outrageous medical mishaps, and make the mafioso moments all the more credible.
Beat The Reaper is cripplingly funny in places but – with impressive expertise for a first novel – switches tone in a single sentence to be bitterly serious or quietly melancholic. It’s not particularly long and the writing is easy to digest so the short chapters fly by. Some of the dialogue and descriptions are sublime, like early episodes of The Wire or Tarantino in his Dog days, and the scenes are so well crafted that you can feel the grit under the eyelids of the medical registrar who is – oops! – just going to open you up for surgery…
Which is not to say that this is a book you should take entirely seriously. The action veers into territory which would be entirely familiar to Felix Leiter (‘he disagreed with something that ate him’, indeed), and the dénouement is entirely incredible. However the final fight scene is also absolutely original: you should never bring a knife to a gun fight, goes the saying. But what do you do if you haven’t even got a knife?
Rarely do you find such fresh inventiveness delivered in such a deft fashion in mainstream fiction. Apparently, the author’s follow-up novel was nowhere near as satisfying. Which is a shame, because this book is flat-out brilliant.
Read this, if you enjoyed Don Winslow’s Savages. It’s on much the same wavelength.
Reviewed by Rowena Hoseason
Beat The Reaper by Josh Bazell is available as an ebook and paperback from Amazon.
Got a good book recommendation? Tell us about it on Facebook