Beat the Reaper
By Josh Bazell
Little, Brown, 320 pages, $24.99
A good thriller writer shares two things with a con man: He tricks you into trusting him, and he takes you for all you’re worth. If he’s good, you fall for the hustle. And if he’s really good, you’ll be entertained even as you’re being suckered.
In sentences as short and sharp as a flu shot, Josh Bazell’s Beat the Reaper tells the story of Pietro Brnwa—a.k.a. the Bearclaw—a former mafia hit man enrolled in the Federal Witness Protection Program. Working as a medical intern at Manhattan’s worst hospital, Brnwa manages to shut the door on his past until a fellow crook recognizes him on duty. An old mob vendetta is renewed, and the undercover intern has 24 hours to save his own life and protect the hospital patients from croaking in the crossfire. With a slitty-eyed take on everything from thoracotomies to Coney Island, Brnwa makes a fantastic narrator. He’s also got a knack for epithets—a Russian thug has “that look of foreignness that makes you wonder whether your face gets changed by speaking a different language,” while a fellow intern named Zhing Zhing “sometimes gets so depressed she needs you to unbend her limbs for her.”
Brnwa’s hospital, Manhattan Catholic, is straight out of a Tim Burton film. Full of leering doctors and nightmarish abuses of protocol, it’s all seen through the sleep-deprived eyes of the killer-turned-medic: “When I go out to the sink to try to wash the blood off, there’s a nurse there scratching his armpit with the needlelike camera of a laparoscope that will later be inserted into someone’s abdomen by doctors wearing moon suits to prevent contamination. He takes one look at me and scuttles off.”
For a man who shares his name with a flaky almond pastry, the Bearclaw is an awfully brutal protagonist. The book’s body count is 14, possibly more, and many of the deaths occur in creative and perturbing ways.
Mr. Bazell slicks the brutality with a comic-book flourish, the lightest pinch of sugar that makes the medicine go down. “Let me tell you about revenge,” says the Bearclaw. “Particularly murderous revenge. It’s a bad idea. For one thing, it doesn’t last. The reason they tell you revenge is best served cold is not so you’ll take the time to get it right, but so you’ll spend longer on the fun part, which is the planning and expectation.” Beat the Reaper, in a way, functions as an extended introduction to Brnwa, who we assume (and hope, by the end) will return for more and more Bearclaw thrillers.
JOSH BAZELL WRITES WITH the seamless ease of a natural—all grace and no flash—which is especially impressive given that Beat the Reaper is his debut, written while the author completed his medical residency at a hospital in San Francisco. A great manipulator of thriller atmospherics, Mr. Bazell effortlessly evokes creepiness, violence, wry humor, lewd sex and shark-tank hijinks. The suspense itself is so well wrought it can provoke physical reactions in a reader: raised eyebrows, clenched toes and every variation on squirming.
Whether via research or sorcery, Mr. Bazell turns the neat trick of inviting us into two cloistered worlds—those of the medical intern and the mob—and making each one believable without diffusing the intrigue. His thriller is packed with facts about guns, medicine, martial arts and anatomy, many of these in the form of footnotes that manage to entertain and instruct without grating—credit to Mr. Bazell for that alone.
Frequent flashbacks advance the plot while fleshing out the bio of its freakishly original narrator. The story is brisk, the prose staccato, and every thread of plot is so ingeniously interlaced that it’s dizzying to imagine where the author began.
Beat the Reaper is a skillful performance, and the proof lies in our willingness to swallow it whole. If at first we allow Mr. Bazell to hoodwink us because he’s so good, the true test comes later—when we forget we’ve been had.
Molly Young is a writer living in New York. She can be reached at email@example.com.