Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Beat the Reaper is Hilarious, Profane, Graphic, and Occasionally Poetic

So, I finished reading Josh Bazell's debut novel, Beat the Reaper. I know, everyone else read this back in January or whenever. It was a bestseller, but somehow I missed it. Then, at Bouchercon, authors on several panels raved about this book. I rushed right out and bought it, and added it to my to-be-read stack.

Aside from the cover blurbs, there are five pages of praise, excerpts of reviews, etc., in the front of the book. This alone is impressive, especially when you look at the names: Michael Connelly, Harlan Coben, Hallie Ephron and others, along with virtually every newspaper and magazine that still reviews books.

The premise of the book (if you've been on a desert island all year, or, like me, were spending your days in an alternate reality), is this: Dr. Peter Brown is an intern at a nightmare of a hospital in Manhattan. Dr. Brown is also in the Witness Protection Program, his previous occupation mob hit man. He stumbles on a terminally ill patient from his mob days, and spends most of the book trying to stay alive while still taking care of his patients.

Beat the Reaper is roughly half flashback to why and how Peter became involved with the mafia, and how he came to be in WITSEC.

It's a thoroughly entertaining read, and it lived up to all its best blurbs. My personal favorite is from The Journal of the American Medical Association: "Bazell's thriller is brutal and vulgar but at the same time hilarious and unflinching." Hmm... a group of doctors thinks it's unflinching.

Look, this book is not for hypochondriacs. In fact, I shouldn't have read it myself, as I am nothing if not a hypochondriac. I'll likely never go within a hundred yards of another hospital. May as well cancel my health insurance right now.

I also would not recommend this book to my mother, or anyone else who has an aversion to that four-letter word that rhymes with duck. No, I am not a prude. I've been know to use that particular obscenity myself. (My mother never reads my blog.) In fact, it appears in my own internal monologue far more often than those close to me would ever imagine. But not every reader is comfortable with such generous use of the many variations on that particular word.

I don't personally know any mobsters, but this language feels real, so it works for me. How are hit men supposed to talk?

Juxtaposed to the hilarity, the flashbacks of Peter's visit to the Holocaust camps in Poland are hauntingly dark, his childhood tragic. Bazell makes us empathize with his conflicted and complex killer, who only kills "killers whose deaths would improve the world."

Peter Brown is also a deep hit man. My favorite quote from the book is: "Ah, youth. It's like heroin you've smoked instead of snorted. Gone so fast you can't believe you still have to pay for it." Indeed.

I'll be first in line to buy the next Peter Brown book. But don't tell my mother. She'd no doubt worry for my soul.

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