On the surface, the premise for this novel seems absolutely ludicrous — a mafia hitman turns his back on his violent ways, enters the witness protection program, spends seven years in medical school, and becomes a doctor. You know what, though? It totally works!
From a pure entertainment standpoint, you really can't do much better than Josh Bazell's Beat The Reaper. It's like reading a movie** — and one for which you pay for the whole seat, but only need the eddddgggeeee. Bazell writes with such flair and humor, but also intelligence and credibility (he actually IS a doctor), that you have no trouble sinking into this story.
Our protagonist is Dr. Peter Brown (f/k/a, Pietro Brnwa, Bearclaw), who is slugging through a shift at Manhattan Catholic hospital, popping pills to stay alert and expounding on the utter ridiculousness of hospital politics. His past and present worlds collide when a patient recognizes him as the former assassin and threatens to inform his mafia colleagues of his whereabouts. Since he'd thrown the son of his former boss out a fifth-story window, that would be real bad. Through dueling past-and-present story lines, Bazell speeds us through Brnwa's hitman days and hurdles us to a conclusion that is almost as ludicrous as the premise of the story itself. But guess what? Somehow, it works too! I put down the book when I finished and just shook my head. Did that really just happen?
One of the really fun parts about this novel is its footnotes. Most people, I'd guess, are annoyed by footnotes, but you won't be here. There's not that many of them, and they're consistently hilarious (i.e., "Scrub suits are reversible, with pockets on both sides, in case you need to run anesthesia or whatever but are too tired to put your pants on correctly.") They're Bazell's (actually, Brown's, since it's first person narrative) way of talking directly to the reader, usually revealing some little-known fact that may have gotten in the way of the fast-paced narrative flow.
Beat The Reaper was a sleeper hit last year — it found its way onto several Best of 2009 lists, including Time and Amazon's Best Mystery & Thriller. If you're looking for a real fast, diversionary read, this book is just the thing.
(**A movie version actually is in the works, apparently, with Leonardo DiCaprio rumored to have signed on to play Brown/Brwna. Now, THAT would be a smart casting decision. I can't find any sort of timetable on filming or release, though.)