BEAT THE REAPER is Josh Bazell’s debut medical/mob thriller. His anti-hero calls himself Dr. Peter Brown in his present incarnation. He is an intern at one of New York City’s worst hospitals, Manhattan Christian. As he narrates the story, he moves back and forth in time using his backstory, which puts his present life in context. One early morning on his rounds, he is assigned a new patient, Nicholas LoBrutto, aka Eddy Squillante, a mobster.
As soon he lays eyes on Dr. Brown, he recognizes him and screams that “Bearclaw” is there to kill him. Obviously the intern has some kind of mob connections and until now has done a good job of hiding them. Squillante knows he has three months to live and tells Brown he will blow his cover if he doesn’t save his life. The story is shaped with the past and present colliding and leaves readers eager to understand who Brown is, how he got to be an intern at Manhattan Christian and what his legal status is. Witness Protection Program? Or hiding out on his own?
After his parents died, Brown was brought up by his grandparents, who treated him well and gave him a good life. But tragedy struck when he was in his teens, and he came home to find them brutally murdered. Who on earth would want to kill this elderly couple who never had any trouble with anyone? Now an orphan, the family of a schoolmate takes the youth into their home and makes him part of their lives. At first it seems that he is being given princely treatment with no strings attached. But one day, the friend’s father has a “talk” with him and explains the debt he owes and will continue to owe for a long time.
His life changes dramatically, and he gains the reputation of a foot soldier who is nicknamed “Bearclaw.” His name at that time is Pietro Brnwna, a mob hit man who looks at violence as he would later look at an X-ray. Any job he is asked to do he does with relish and no afterthoughts. By the end of the book, at least a dozen bodies have been racked up.
Years pass, but unlike many Mafioso, Brown is given permission to leave the “FAMILY” if he agrees to one more job. His “mentor” wants Pietro to make his son a killing machine, too. The agreement is reached and understood to be the initiation of the other young man into the mob. He has to “make his bones” and kill at least one person, then get away with it. The assignment goes into motion but takes strange and unexpected twists. Something is not right. These two men who knew each other from the time they were in school are having “a failure to communicate.”
In the meantime, the narrative has segued from the past crime scenes to the present Dr. Peter Brown, miracle worker. Almost. He’s very good and really enjoys medicine. But now that Squillante knows who he is, he is going to have to disappear again and become someone else. Does this mean that Josh Bazell will bring him back in another life as whatever the witness program allows him to morph into? Yes!
In an interview Bazell said, “Brown goes on to solve crimes that require both scientific understanding and physical toughness.” And when asked about the footnotes sprinkled throughout the novel, he replied, “To try footnotes in a book with a fair amount of science in it seemed obvious.” He admitted that some readers find them distracting, but if they choose to read them, he hopes they “will find them worth the time.”
Reviewed by Barbara Lipkien Gershenbaum on December 22, 2010