Wow, where to begin on trying to explain how good this book is, how much I love it?
Let me start with this statement: This is the most creative, thrilling hilarious novel I have read in more than five years. Keep in mind I read on average a book a week so that means this is one of the best of about 300 books I have read in five years.
That this is an author's first novel makes this wild tour-de-force even more astonishing. The novel reminded me of two books – also both by first-time authors – that similarly stunned and amused me, namely
Frank Portman's King Dork and Lisa Lutz's Spellman Files books.
Perhaps then it is appropriate that Lisa Lutz has this blurb for the book:
"I didn't want to like it. I mean, a doctor writing a novel is kind of obnoxious. What, you don't have enough to do already? But maybe that's me. Anyway, I didn't want to like Beat the Reaper, but I did; I loved it. It is completely original, an utter page-turner, bold, shocking, hilarious, complex, and even educational. It's that book you wish you had with you when you were trapped in an airport during a three-hour flight delay. My only complaint is that I've already read it.
Let me just make one cautionary note – the book is for mature audiences so if you are bothered by cuss words or casual references to sex this may not be the book for you. Or put another way, this is not a book I'd suggest reading with your children.
I mention this because I was so excited during the book's first 50 pages that I made plans to buy copies of it for every family member but, well, let's just say I am glad I did not buy it for my mom or she would still be blushing.
That said, this book is a stunner. It's understandable why there was a bidding war between publishers vying for the rights to publish it.
The dark comedy is about a young doctor, Pietro Brown, who was a hitman for the mafia in New Jersey before entering a witness relocation program. His already crazy life gets more crazy when he has a patient who recognizes him and calls the mafia.
Tthe book begin with him observing a fight between a bird and a rat and then getting, well, he was going to get mugged except he kicked the potential mugger's butt. You have to admit that's a clever premise and great opening and while there were 1 million ways the book could have gone wrong (too dark, too comic) the book comes up with the perfect balance.
Unless you are under 18 or a prude buy this book - you can thank me later.
I spoke with the author last week via email.
What was it like to be the focus of a two-day bidding war over your book?
Somewhere between being the focus of a one-day bidding war and being the focus of a three-day bidding war, I imagine. But seriously, it was a great surprise, gratifying and humbling. And very exciting to have people enthusiastic about the book, because it felt like the book therefore had a chance to find a lot of readers.
Scott: Where did the idea for this book come from?
I was looking to explore the process of changing identities. I think my own medical training and some of the fears I had about what it would do to me had something to do with that. And once you have someone turning into a doctor, it seems reasonable to have them start out from the opposite position, of being a killer. I also thought that was a hard sell, which made it an interesting challenge.
Tell me about the warning in this book – how important was it to include that? It's my favorite book warning I have ever encountered.
Thanks. It was important to me as a physician, and Reagan Arthur, my editor, also liked that it ended up doing double duty by being an opportunity to (partially) explain the epigraph. But the publishers didn't demand such a thing, since the book already had the usual "characters and events in this book are fictitious" line.
"All parts of this book except this paragraph, the acknowledgements, and the dedication are fiction. Even the epigraph is fiction.
Believing otherwise, particularly regarding medical information, would
be a bad idea."
Now does that second sentence mean the information is inaccurate or just that it'd be ill advised if someone did the kind of dastardly deeds that occur or are alluded to in the book.
The majority of the information is as accurate as I could make it, but in addition to whatever I'm just wrong about, some facts were changed to speed things up or to avoid imparting information that could be used to harm people.
Do you expect to run into people like me who worry that you are too knowledgeable about some of this stuff for it not to be true?
No. I imagine that anyone who decides I have an actual past as a contract killer will take it upon themselves to not run into me at all.
What do you think the reception will be like at the hospital after your book came out? If I were a colleague – let alone a patient – I'd be worried about you.
I don't worry about this, but people ask me about it, so maybe I should. I have trouble imagining people would decline medical care because their provider was also a crime novelist. Obviously the main character engages in some pretty sordid behavior, like the drug use, but I'm guessing people will see this for what it is – a fictional description of a desperate, marginal character, and a standard noir trope.
What medicine shows do you think do the best job of capturing real life as doctors?
I don't tend to watch medicine shows, both because I get enough of that kind of thing at work and because it's often hard to suspend disbelief when people aren't pronouncing things correctly and so on. However, in the past year I've seen a couple of amazing documentaries about surgery teams in Iraq that capture the sense of mission and pride even in the face of frustration with larger realities.
How is the second novel coming ? Is it about the same character? Can you tell a bit about it?
The second book is about the same character. It's an exercise in making something that conforms to the definition of a sequel have the same sense of freshness as the original. I don't know how it's working yet, but it's a lot of fun.