The above illustration, "Blowing Bubbles," has been adapted for use here by generous permission from the artist, Cyril Rolando.

January 22, 2009


SYNOPSIS: Nice Jewish boy turned mob hit-man turned federal witness turned doctor is found out by one of the patients, a mob man from the not-so-good doctor's past, at the Manhattan hospital where he works. Violence ensues.

REVIEW: This book is sharp, funny, cynical, original, well-paced, and there's also graphic violence for those who relish it. There are many good things to say about this book, which has garnered praise-blurbs from the likes of Crais, Winslow, Coben, Connelly, et al, and created a small buzz among crime fic book bloggers.

Ultimately however, for me, Beat the Reaper was not an altogether satisfying read. Don't get me wrong; I understand the buzz about this book. It keeps your attention. But for every hilarious and keenly observant comment, there is a footnote that drags the reader out of the flow of the story. Yeah, footnotes. Not something I really like to see in a novel. There's some interesting info in those footnotes but they are distracting. For every well-choreographed martial arts scene, I also felt the pull on the suspension of my disbelief. The protagonist, Dr. Peter Brown (uh huh, that's his witness protection name; his real name is Pietra Brnwa. 'Nuff said.), out-Bonds 007 in martial arts, weaponry, smarts, and pretty much any area you care to name. And he does it all without sleep and while high on 'scrips. What with Brown's superhero fighting skills combined with his doctor-as-god smarts, the character grated on me. Brown isn't too good to be true, he's a hit man after all, but he is too much to be true. By the time I got to the climactic scene in which Brown does the most amazing, gross, and entirely unbelievable thing to save his life, I was well past caring. (Still, it's a scene that ought to be read because what kind of mind could think that sort of thing up? Scary.)

The construction of the story is perhaps a little ambitious for a debut novelist, as it alternates between Brown's ongoing dilemmas with mobsters and patients, and his back story. It's a good idea, even though the writing isn't quite strong enough to make it work. The back story was the place where the reader should develop some sympathy for the main character so we can root for him in his current predicament. For me that never happened; I simply never developed any sympathy or identification with Dr. Brown. Contrast that with, say, the back story of Frank Temple II in Michael Koryta's Envy the Night. In that book, Temple also was trained in the art of killing from an early age, and the reader is both horrified by his skills and pity the man he becomes. The reader relates to his humanity. When Peter Brown displays humanity it feels less like true compassion for his patients than merely the fulfillment of an obligation he has made to render such service. Medicine is what he does, not what he is.

BTW, does anyone think that a hit man who lived and worked among the northern New Jersey mob would, after enrolling in the Federal Witness Protection Program, be placed in a Manhattan hospital for work, instead of, oh, say, a hospital in Topeka?

For all my dissatisfaction with the protagonist, Bazell is unquestionably very talented, and once he stops trying to cram all his good ideas into one book and learns to genuinely develop his characters, his stories could be breathtaking. This book is closer to the style of Swierczynski's Severance Package than to a Ken Bruen book, and if you were a fan of Severance Package then you should love this book also. For me, the most riveting scenes in the book are not the ones where Brown is dealing with his would-be killers, it's the scenes where he's dealing with his co-workers and patients. Here's one of my favorites, in which Brown's co-worker (the ID guy) has just accidentally stabbed him in the arm with a hypodermic needle containing a sample from a patient who may have an infectious disease:
I snap the needle off and drop it into the drawer of a sharps box on the wall behind me. Then I take hold of the front of the ID guy's scrub shirt and drop the hypo chamber into his pocket. "Scrape what you can out of this and analyze it," I tell him. "Take the Path guy with you."

"I don't even know what I'm doing here," the Path guy whines.

"Don't make me hurt you," I tell him.

"Dr. Brown," the Attending says.

"Yes, sir?" I say, still looking at the ID guy.

"Give me a five-minute head start?"

"You left ten minutes ago," I tell him.

"You're a mensch, kid. Cheers," he says as he leaves.

Everyone else stands frozen.

"Stat, you fucking assholes!" I tell them.

I'm almost out of the room when I realize something's wrong. Something else, I mean.

Duke Mosby's bed is empty. "Where's Mosby?" I say.

"Maybe he went for a walk," one of the med students says, behind me.

"Mosby's got bilateral pedal gangrene," I say. "The guy can't even hobble."

But apparently he can run.


  1. Another great review. Plus, now you've got me curious. And Audible has it, unabridged. It's on the list. Thanks, Corey.

  2. le0, you're curious about that one scene, aren't you?

    I understand Hollywood has already nailed down the rights to this book, and that Leonardo diCaprio is the actor of choice for the lead. I dunno, maybe. You'll have to let me know if you agree with them.

  3. Hmmm, definitely makes me think twice about reading this one. You've just highlighted the reasons I don't care so much for Sean Chercover and Lee Child. They are both very popular authors, but where you mentioned the character is too much to be true...I immediately thought of Jack Reacher. And when you said "I simply never developed any sympathy or identification with Dr. Brown" - Ray Dudgeon.

    Thanks Corey. Glad to hear your views on this one. I have a lot of TBRs and this one doesn't sound like one I'm going to "fast track."

  4. Jen, even Jack Reacher doesn't ever go where Dr. Brown goes in that last action scene. For which I am thankful.

  5. ...even Jack Reacher doesn't ever go where Dr. Brown goes in that last action scene. For which I am thankful.

    Yes, Corey. I'm interested in that one scene.

    DiCaprio, huh? I wonder if they'll attempt to tone down the action/violence for him? Do you know who they have for director?

  6. I don't know who the director will be, sorry. diCaprio and his partners have only just acquired the film rights, so it's probably not decided yet.

  7. One great review after another. I will have to check it out.

  8. David C, I didn't think my reservations about this book would put too many people off. There's just so much buzz building for this book. I think Bazell shows a lot of promise, and I'm very interested in seeing what a second novel from him will look like. Second books, or so Michael Koryta once said, are much more difficult to write.

  9. Corey, I noted that this novel was listed in your I'm currently reading... section, along with L.A. Outlaws. Were you going to write a review of that T. Jefferson Parker novel? Crais mentioned to Parker at a panel I attended last year that he should create a series for that protagonist, Charlie Hood. He did: The Renegades comes out in Feb. Just curious on your take. Thanks.

  10. I didn't intend to write a review of 'LA Outlaws,' but I will say in brief that I did enjoy the book, WAY more than I did the only other TJ Parker title I've read, which was 'Silent Joe.' I didn't realize there would be another title with Charlie H. in it, but based on how much I enjoyed LAO ("Allison" was a terrific outlaw; she was insane (IMO) but I liked her) I'm going to have to read the new one. In fact, I better add it to my 'anticipating' list. Thanks for the info!

  11. I completely agree with this review. It was difficult to nail what I didn't quite like about it, but you did.

  12. Thanks for stopping by, pattinase. Nice to know that I'm not alone in running against the prevailing wind of opinions on this book.

  13. This comment is two years too late haha! But I just read this book and it was quite good. The storytelling was cryptic here and there. But it was light and entertaining. :)

  14. Never too late, Lambchop! I see that Bazell's second book won't be out until February, 2012.