Jason Rice: I was paging through Publishers Weekly recently when I came across a Spring 09 preview for a debut novel by Josh Bazell called Beat The Reaper. The cover caught my eye and when I got the ARC the next day I noticed that Reagan Arthur was the editor responsible for bringing this little gem of a thriller into the world. Word around the camp fire is that Reagan Arthur knows what’s what. I must warn you that this book doesn’t come out until January of 2009, but we’ll run this conversation again around pub time so it stays fresh on your frontal lobe. DH and I talked about how unrealistic it is for publishers to expect readers not to talk about what they’ve read especially when they send out ARC’s six months ahead of publication. I understand that method as their trying to get reviews for these books, and early buzz, but this book jumped up at us and it’s hard not to talk about…at least a little bit. There aren’t any blurbs on this book, Reagan Arthur writes a great letter to get your interest and after that it’s up to Mr. Bazell to hold your attention. I was leery of the Quentin Tarantino reference but the stylish violence (is there any other kind?) and the breakneck pace smeared with blistering medical knowledge and prickly dialogue made me forget that reference immediately.
Mr. Bazell offers a first hand account of a man in Witness Protection who is working as a doctor, a strung out and tired, but basically sick to death of death doctor. It wasn’t easy to get me to like Peter Brown, but Bazell does it immediately, sometimes through his narrow and precise narrative, all examining the different sickening facets of life in the emergency room, and this isn’t Patrick Dempsey of Grey’s Anatomy we’re talking about here. I’ve often been told that significant flashbacks are jarring for the reader, especially when they happen mid-chapter, but Bazell takes us back into the shadows where Peter Brown used to be someone else, before he was a hit man, before he, well, who he is now.
As cliche as this may sound, I found it impossible to set this novel down, even harder to ignore as the superb craftsmanship and supremely confident writing signals the arrival of an exciting new talent. There are characters and set pieces that remind me of literary and cinematic pulp, Bazell sometimes echoes other writers, but not for very long, he even manages to teach me a thing or two about the business, or finer points of being a doctor through perfectly placed foot-notes. That’s right, this thriller has foot-notes, not David Foster Wallace foot-notes, but good foot-notes. I fell in love with this story after the first two pages, and it’s great to read a book that doesn’t pretend to be something it’s not.
Dennis Haritou: JR is so right about Beat the Reaper being a hot book. Imagine a talented mafia hit man, if talent is the right word to use for a brilliant killer, who goes into the witness protection program and becomes a doctor. But he still has to knock off a guy now and then, purely in self-defense you understand, because he is carrying around a lot of baggage. With cold, flashing accuracy Josh Bazell describes criminal violence as if it were a form of medical science. And he also describes medical science as if it were a form of criminal violence. I find the latter more interesting. His lead character, “Doctor Peter Brown”, also known as “Bear Claw”, is like, the Hawkeye of hit men. If that sounds wild…well it is but it’s also manically intelligent entertainment. We are onto something special if the imagination that describes how people are killed has a medical degree. It’s a fresh kind of forensics because the science is before the crime happens rather than after.
The action scenes are too baroque for my taste, like using sharks as a murder weapon. That is not a metaphor. I felt some sense of imbalance also as the story seemed to waver a bit between being a narrative about working in a hospital to being a saga about a hit man with a heart of gold. The flashbacks don’t work as well as JR indicates. I asked myself once or twice where I was in the story because of them.
I can understand how a competent doctor turned author could use an in-depth knowledge of medicine to enrich a crackling suspense novel. That, of course, is not unique. But I want to know where all the in-depth knowledge of the mob and the martial arts comes from. JR tells me that if I watched a few Mafia flicks that he would recommend, I wouldn’t be as impressed with the “organization” part of the book. But the combo of hit man turned surgeon is totally winning. I wish my doctor could tell stories that are this good.
Jason Chambers: Well, Tarantino cover reference aside, I have no doubt someone out there is itching to make this into a movie. The action is pretty much non-stop, yet at the same time the protagonist manages to be both despicable and fearsome, but insightful and introspective and funny. I don’t see any way you can read this book without thinking of Chuck Palaniuk and Elmore Leonard. Which, of course, is not a bad thing at all for most of us.
I disagree with Dennis about the flashbacks. I thought they worked pretty well. He is right about the sharpness of the forensic storytelling, where first we learn the gory detail about how an injury occurs and then equally grotesque commentary on the cure or the lack thereof, all in the face of encroaching gangsters and, yes, sharks.
I like this as a development in the criminal-focused sub-genre of crime novel, like the Leonards and the Westlakes, where so often the protagonist is a likeable thug, or thief or murderer. The current success of the Dexter TV (and book) series is another exemplar. A lot of the books in this area are fun and action-packed, to go along with suspenseful, and I think this book fits perfectly in that crowd.
JR: I’m glad I found something that was so accessible and fun to read. I do think that this debut novel head and shoulders above the genre it’s aimed at. I’d be interested to hear what the author has to say about that theory, and we’ll have that chance when he answers a few questions that I’ve thrown his way. Which is to say that an interview with Josh Bazell is forthcoming.