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.