Fresh Blood

Name: Josh Bazell

Title of Book: Beat the Reaper

'You will be astounded, horrified, saddened and elated - and all in one day’s work!'

Peter Brown knew it was going to be one of those days when some asshole tried to mug him on his way to work. Little did the mugger know who he was tussling with and soon the mugger inevitably comes off worse... Peter Brown is a doctor who has a past. He wasn’t always known by that name. Once his monika was ‘Bearclaw’ - something he hasn’t heard in many a year. That is until he walks in to a room with a new patient who knew Peter when he was a hitman for the mob. Squillante knew Peter in his previous incarnation and has demanded that if he dies at any time during his stay, pre or post operation, then he has made sure that word gets out that Bearclaw is alive and well and working as a doctor.

Now, fearing that his new life under the Witness Protection Program is at stake, Peter continues his rounds knowing that the only way to stay alive is to make sure Squillante also stays alive. But the deck is stacked against Peter. Not only does he have to sort out the problems of a guy with is literally a pain in the ass ‘Assman’, but he has to deal with steamy encounters, med students without a clue and a history that is running toward Peter at full stream. It is looking set to be one of those days…

Beat the Reaper is a wonderfully quirky and darkly humourous novel. Bazell, whose background is medicine, is perfect for giving Peter Brown the voice of a struggling, frustrated doctor who seems - like Canute - to try and hold back the tide of sick patients and is rapidly losing the fight. But, like all practitioners of medicine, despite no backup and the alarming number of nurses who seem to have given up the struggle and have left their compassion at home, Peter Brown is a man who is angered by the shortcomings of staff and facilities but is spurred on to make a difference.

While we are taken through Peter’s day at the hospital, the author also leads us through Peter’s history from a boy brought up by his Polish grandparents to meeting his best friend, Skinflick and the Locano family. The patriarch, David Locano, has links to the mob, and it is through him and a horrendous incident in Peter’s life that propels him in to the mafia. All of Peter’s history is interspersed through the story during his working day - which sounds like hell on earth. With Bazell’s medical background some of the facts that are presented in footnotes are enough to make you stay away from any medical establishment. It is equally fascinating and horrifying, even if only some of the facts are true...

Beat the Reaper is a wonderfully engaging novel that starts with a full-on beginning and doesn’t let up until the end - which is pretty gruesome, to say the least. (What Peter does is to be commended but you wouldn’t catch me doing it to get out of even a very sticky situation!). Don’t worry, there are plenty of bodies by the time Peter ends his historical resume!

The humour is dark and sometimes very close to the knuckle. Physical and verbal abuse is a well known factor in hospitals and if any of these patients are anything to go by I am amazed more people aren’t thrown out of windows by the very people who are supposed to be saving them. In the end it is the humour, as well as this man’s actions in his ‘normal’ day, that make for a macabre desire to continue to watch and see how Peter’s day progresses. Beat the Reaper is different from the norm in the crime genre and I suggest you should definitely give it a read. You will be astounded, horrified, saddened and elated - and all in one day’s work!

Reviewed by: C.S.

CrimeSquad Rating

Fresh Blood Questionnaire

1) How would you classify your writing, and do you consciously try to write to a certain style or genre?
I do sometimes try to hit genre touchstones, almost as a formalist exercise. For example, the idea for the character in “Beat the Reaper” who’s so smart he could solve any crime presented to him, but so busy he’s impossible to get on the phone, comes from the tradition of detectives who are brilliant but in some way disabled. (Possibly most strongly represented at the moment by Jeffrey Deaver’s books about Lincoln Rhyme, who’s actually quadriplegic.) But I would be horrified if readers read my work and noticed crap like that. The genre term I would cling to if I had to would be “thriller.” If a book doesn’t force you to read it, and give you back more energy than you put in, then what’s the point?
2) What type of crime novels do you like to read? Do you prefer series or standalone?
This is a question that’s been much on my mind recently, since right now I’m writing the next book about Pietro Brnwa, so please forgive me (and feel free to edit) if I answer at length.

It seems to me that the gap between series crime fiction and one-offs has narrowed somewhat in the last couple of decades, possibly as a result of changes in television. When I was growing up, serial books, movies, and television mostly took the form of self-enclosed episodes that could be (and often were) presented out of their original order. There might be a final entry in the series, as there was for Hercules Poirot, Sherlock Holmes, and (unfortunately during the U.S. writers’ strike of the 1980s) Magnum, P.I. But all the other entries would be interchangeable, and you could pick them up in any order. The result of this was that main characters didn’t tend to age or otherwise gain experience from one episode to the next. Instead, guest characters would have their lives changed by the main characters within the course of a single episode: Dr. No might die, but James Bond wouldn’t even get a promotion.

Obviously the idea of a series character whose adventures can followed out of order long predates television. But it seems like some of the changes that have come about in television -- where, at least in the U.S., shows now often have explicit timelines, and are more like what were called soap operas and miniseries when I was growing up -- are also happening in fiction. These days it’s a lot easier to find a character like Michael Connolly’s Harry Bosch or Ken Bruen’s Jack Taylor, who have no clear end-point (at least yet) but carry their accreting history with them from one book to the next, than to find one like John Dickson Carr’s Dr. Fell or Dororthy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey, who are always in the middle of a some vague history. Of course, there are degress of this. An extreme version is James Ellroy’s masterpiece of a series that began with “Black Dahlia” and continues to this day -- with, I believe, none of the original characters still onboard.

In many ways this change feels like a maturation and an improvement, in that it produces stories that feel more real, but clearly there are losses, too. The more progression there is in a series, the harder it is (for me, at least) to start anywhere from the beginning. And there’s something reassuring about James Bond, vampirelike, explaining to the new kids where the mimeostats from 1974 are stored.
3) Your main protagonist, Peter Brown is a doctor, a profession you share. There are a lot of medical references along with footnotes in the book. Did you enjoy sharing your medical knowledge with Peter and your readers? Was it good for you to ‘stick to what you know’?
I don’t know about good, but it was definitely lazy. I mean, in medicine you do and see some fairly bizarre things, and if by some failure of the regimented educational process you remain partly aware of how strange those things are, then you are rolling in great material.
4) You infuse a grim, dark humour into your writing? Did you always intend to write something that was dark but with chinks of humour?
There’s been a recent surge in explicitly comedic crime writing (Carl Hiassen, Duane Swierczynski, and Lisa Lutz come to mind, although Jonathan Gash has been doing it for some time), and I consider myself to be part of this trend. But crime writing, and particularly first person noirish crime writing, also seems to have a tradition of (as we spell in this country) humor, visible for example in the kind of snappy dialogue and similes associated with Raymond Chandler.

The thinness of the line between wry noir cynicism and outright comedy can be seen pretty perfectly in the work of Robert Leslie Bellem, who wrote for various magazines with the word “Spicy” in the title (including “Spicy Detective”) in the 1940s. These stories were advertised as completely serious, and even now never come across as amateurish, but as S.J. Perelman has pointed out, the voice of Bellem’s usual hero, Dan Turner, is so far past hard-boiled -- “It’s a damn screwy feeling to reach for pajamas and find a cadaver instead”; “I don’t like dames to be rubbed out when I’m flinging woo at them”; “She was as dead as vaudeville” and so on -- that it’s clear that someone was having a pretty good time.
5) Peter Brown as he is known under the Witness Protection Program was a hit man for the Mob. How did this dangerous prior occupation leap into your imagination and work its way into the story? Have you always had an interest in the Mafia?
I wanted to make Brown’s transition to becoming a doctor as extreme as possible, so it seemed reasonable to have him start as a killer. That said, I’m from New York. I grew up in the neighborhood where Vinnie the Chin used to walk the streets in his bathrobe in case he needed an insanity defense later on. As I point out in “Beat the Reaper,” there was a kind of time warp after the book and movie of “the Godfather,” where mobsters in the 70s started impersonating Puzo’s representation of what mobsters had been like in the 50s, and became celebrities. This was still an active phenomenon during my childhood.
6) There are plenty of footnotes, some of medical interest and some pithy asides. What was the reasoning behind using such a writing device?
The book as a whole is modeled on the lowlife subgenre of mafioso-in-the-Witness-Protection-Program memoir, and some of them use footnotes. And obviously scientific and medical writing uses them as well. So it seemed like a fun thing to play around with and see if it was tolerable. And most -- though certainly not all -- people who read early drafts felt that it was. In the end I felt it was an acceptable thing to do as long as it was entertaining, and as long as you could ignore the footnotes completely if you wanted to and still understand the book.
7) You have also been a screenwriter. Did your work within the movie industry influence the way you write ‘Beat the Reaper’? It is written at a very fast pace. Was this deliberate and could you see the book as a film whilst writing it?
I didn’t think of “Beat the Reaper” as a film while I was writing it, but I do think working as a screenwriter made me more aware of structural and pacing considerations. I almost hesitate to say that, because a lot of what gets taught as structure in screenwriting books and classes is bad advice leading to formulaic garbage, but the fact is I grew in a lot of ways as a writer while I was working in L.A.
8) Do you see any trends in Crime and Thriller novels for 2009 and beyond?
What’s always been great about crime fiction is its willingness to depict realities that are ignored or sanitized by other art. Anybody who thinks the past was ever less grim or intense than the present should look at Benjamin Appel and Jim Thompson, for example. So I’m hoping for an ever higher standard of honesty.
9) Who would be your dream cast of movie actors for an adaptation of your story?
Leonardo di Caprio is a producer on the movie of “Beat the Reaper” and is said to be considering playing Pietro. Obviously I would be thrilled if he did.
10) Without giving away the plot, which book - yours or by another author - included your favourite plot twist of all time?
Somewhere between the escape in Household’s “Rogue Male” and the last line of Charles Willeford’s “Pick-Up.”
11) What is your favourite movie adaptation of a crime novel?
There are a lot to choose from. I particularly like when filmmakers make bold choices that work, like having the movie of “A Simple Plan” be more about the conflict with the brother than with the wife, or severely compressing the time frame of “L.A. Confidential.” And it’s not like “The Godfather” sucked. But to me, the movie that best realizes the book it’s based on is probably “Silence of the Lambs.” The whole film is just magnetic.
12) Would you describe yourself as a crime fiction fan in general and, if so, which authors do you most admire and why?
I love crime fiction. I have always loved crime fiction. Writers who were doctors, like Arthur Conan Doyle, are always an inspiration, but really I love anyone who seems to be depicting at a particularly dark element of reality and getting it right. Jim Thompson, James Ellroy, and Joyce Carol Oates come to mind.
13) What is your favourite read crime of all time?
Somewhere between “Kidnapped” and “White Jazz.”