There's a long tradition of doctors moonlighting as novelists Anton Chekhov, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, W. Somerset Maugham but Josh Bazell, a resident physician at the University of California, San Francisco, is the first we know of to write a medical thriller in the blunt, brutal prose style of a hard-boiled pulp mystery. Think House meets The Sopranos, or Mickey Spillane in OR scrubs. Beat the Reaper is definitely not a book to pick up if you happen to be recuperating in a hospital, but if you're stuck in an airport with a long flight delay, it's just what the doctor ordered.
The narrator is Peter Brown, an intern at Manhattan Catholic, the worst hospital in New York. Turns out Brown has a double identity; he's also Pietro Brnwa, a former hitman for the Mob who gave evidence in exchange for a witness protection deal that put him into med school. But one night while performing hospital rounds, Brown runs into a familiar face a dying mobster who recognizes the doctor from his former life and the story takes off like, um, a hot slug from a .45 (pulp writing isn't as easy as it looks). Fortunately, Brown's brilliant diagnostic skills aren't his only talents; he's also good at gunplay, martial arts, and saving dames in distress, like Magdalena, a beautiful Romanian violist with a mouth to murder for (''I'd kill everyone I ever killed all over again for those lips,'' Brown confesses).
Bazell lays on the Sam Spade shtick a bit thick in places, and his plot takes some really preposterous twists (mobsters don't really dunk people into shark tanks in Coney Island, do they?). But he also has a mischievous sense of humor, especially when it comes to medicine. He plants annotations throughout the book explaining such medical mysteries as why hospitals put dextrose in their bottled water (to jack up the price, of course) or how physicians can tell how old you are by comparing creases in the neck with veins on the backs of hands. The book is almost worth buying just for these helpful little doctor's notes. B+