Pietro Brnwa: Remember This Name

Our youngest son is an aspiring doctor, starting a M.D./Ph.D. program this summer. So my wife and I read medical fiction and books about young doctors. I suppose we are afraid we'll run out of things to talk about with him. When a young doctor confronts crime, I am in seventh heaven. My son and I can both talk about things we understand.

A recent review of Josh Bazell's Beat the Reaper, a debut thriller published by Little-Brown, caught both my wife's and my eye the other day. It arrived in the mail a week or so ago. I finished it last night. A one word review could suffice: Wow.

But such a review doesn't permit me to introduce a character that I suspect will become a mainstay in years to come: Dr. Pietro Brnwa, also known as Peter Brown, and, to some, known for reasons that will become to readers, no pun intended, as "Bearclaw."

This is joyous irreverence at its best. Dr. Brnwa is working in a busy Manhattan hospital, a recent medical school graduate learning the ropes after a career switch from a very different profession. He eases the reader through the vocabulary of hospital medicine. "`Stat'," he tells us, "is short, though not very, for statim. `Calling a code' is what you do when you want to pretend you don't know that someone's already dead."

Bazell is himself a recent medical school graduate doing his residency at the University of California, San Francisco. He writes with more ease than you would expect about the criminal justice system, although he is on somewhat shaky ground when he writes about Brady v. Maryland. The decision does not create general discovery rights for defendants in a criminal case. Rather, it merely imposes on the Government a duty to disclose exculpatory evidence. But perhaps I am too harsh on Bazell, for, as it turns out, the evidence to which he refers when nodding at Brady turns out to be exculpatory in a way that trial lawyers can only fantasize about.

But you don't read Bazell for his take on the law. You read him because his prose are taught and filled with the necessary menace that comes of walking along life's edge in the service of others.

"It's a weird curse," Brnwa observes, "when you think about it. We're built for thought, and civilization, more than any other creature we've found. And all we really want to be is killers."

I won't pass the book on to my tender-hearted wife. There are scenes in the book that make you wince, and one that I had to read twice for the horror simply to take shape. It is rare that I am surprised by a thriller. But I was shocked, and for that I am grateful, and anxious to see where Brnwa next surfaces.

It's a jungle out there, all right. Bazell's gift is to make you laugh, even as the tiger stalks and you reckon with moral certainty the dismal odds of survival.


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