Josh Bazell landed a lucrative publishing deal for his first novel shortly after graduating from medical school. To say that he's better at writing than most writers would be at practicing medicine is to understate Bazell's talent, but it's too good a line to pass up. Beat the Reaper, his highly anticipated debut, may be a bit short on art, but it's long on page-turning action and laughs.

When it comes to the human body, Bazell knows his bones. He has an M.D. from Columbia University and is a medical resident at the University of California, San Francisco. His protagonist, Pietro Brnwa, is also a doctor—an overworked Manhattan hospital intern who goes by the name Peter Brown. Pietro took an unusual road to his Hippocratic oath, having spent his earlier years as a mob hit man nicknamed "The Bearclaw." After seeing the error of his ways—which in the mafia means he testified against his former employers and joined the witness protection program—he became a doctor as penance.

Not surprisingly, Brnwa's former life catches up with him. Mobster Eddy Squillante, in the hospital for a life-saving surgery with about a 50 percent success rate, recognizes the killer-turned-doctor. Now Brnwa must keep him alive or Squillante will hand his new knowledge over to a wannabe hit man named Skinflick.

In chapters that alternate between past and present, Bazell fills us in on how Brnwa became "The Bearclaw" while keeping the action rolling. He includes medical footnotes, mostly confirming that the craziest thing a sick person can do is check into a hospital.

Bazell doesn't waste time. In the very first paragraph, an unfortunate mugger is pointing a gun in Brnwa's face after the doctor stops to watch a rat fight a pigeon—a true Manhattan undercard. The mugger serves his purpose, however, since the pistol winds up in Brnwa's scrub pants pocket. However, it would be unwise for the reader to relax. It's chapter one, the firearm is introduced and the good doctor Bazell knows his Chekhov.

Ian Schwartz writes from San Diego.

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