BOOK: Beat the Reaper by Josh Bazell (2009)

Peter Brown is an emergency room physician with a sharp tongue, a brilliant mind, and a . . . how should we say? . . . “different” sort of ethical code.  He’s extremely dedicated to his work, but he’s also the kind of guy who will beat a would-be mugger nearly to death and then screw a pharmaceutical rep in the hospital elevator a few minutes later.

When a new patient, Eddy Squillante, comes into the ER one day, takes one look at Peter, and exclaims in terror, “Don’t kill me, Bearclaw!”, the story of Peter’s past comes out at last, a story that explains a lot of his “quirky” personality.

You see, Peter is in the Federal Witness Protection Program (“WITSEC”) after spending nearly a decade as a hit man for a bigwig mafia family, the Locanos — a mafia family that became like his own until the son, Peter’s best friend Skinflick, turned on him.

Peter reassures Squillante that he isn’t planning on killing him, but it’s too late — Eddy has already called someone and set things up so that if he dies, the Locanos get a phone call telling them where to find their old enemy.  The doc isn’t too freaked out by this, all things considered, until he learns from Squillante that Skinflick, who Peter had thrown out a 6-story window a few years back, is still alive.  And desperate for cruel, painful revenge.

Surgical complications take Eddy, alas, leaving Petey with about 90 minutes to get the hell outta Dodge.  The problem is, if he moves again in WITSEC, he’ll be giving up medicine for good  (can’t exactly hang a medical license in your office with somebody else’s name on it, after all).  And, of course, there’s that other patient of his about to lose her leg if Dr. Brown doesn’t help . . .

Well, RATS!  What’s a foul-mouthed, shady-moraled, ex-Mafia hit man to do?

This novel is incredibly funny and clever, with a great story and lots of interesting tidbits about the inner workings of modern medicine, pharmaceutical marketing, and mafiosos (plus the Holocaust — a unique combination, for sure).  I also found the parts about Peter and Skinflick’s boyhood friendship really poignant, and was truly moved by the story of the love of Peter’s life, the beautiful, gentle, tragic Magdalena.

For a comedy about sarcastic hired killers, in other words, this novel is surprisingly touching.

Well-written and fun, Beat the Reaper is a quick read and a great choice for anyone looking for a good summer vacation book.  Recommended!


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