No Rest for the Dead

Image of No Rest for the Dead
Release Date: 
October 13, 2011
Simon & Schuster
Reviewed by: 

“No Rest for the Dead . . . not an anthology, but a single story with each author handling a chapter—a literary game of Telephone. . . . the list of contributors, a who’s who of commercial fiction: Alexander McCall Smith, Jeffery Deaver, Sandra Brown, R.L. Stine, et al. Titans of the publishing industry—all of them.”

One afternoon during the recent heat wave, you decide to get out of your muggy house and into the industrial-strength air-conditioning of the one local corporate bookstore/coffee shop still standing. With latte in hand, you browse the new releases when one of the titles catches your eye.

No Rest for the Dead, it says, and it doesn’t have one author but 26 of them. It’s not an anthology, but a single story with each author handling a chapter—a literary game of Telephone.

Curiosity piqued, you flip over the book and see the list of contributors, a who’s who of commercial fiction: Alexander McCall Smith, Jeffery Deaver, Sandra Brown, R.L. Stine, et al. Titans of the publishing industry—all of them.

Impressed with the caliber of talent assembled, you eagerly get out your wallet and stand in line. Browsing further, you’re presented with an introduction by thriller writer extraordinaire David Baldacci, who compares this lineup with that of the 1927 Yankees and you, who in addition to a mystery connoisseur are also something of a baseball scholar, wonder which of these authors is meant to be Ruth and which Gehrig.

“It is startling,” Mr. Baldacci writes, “how these writers . . . have woven a yarn that seems to be the product of one mind, one imagination (albeit schizophrenic), and one on steroids of such strength that even Major League Baseball would ban them.”

Strained analogy aside, you’re relieved that your biggest fear about this kind of project—whether having so many hands in the broth would lead to a disjointed narrative—has been allayed, and you feel confident you’re making a smart purchase. Even better, it’s been written for charity—the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society—so it’ll be 25 bucks well spent (less, it turns out, because you’re using your Special Platinum Dedicated Consumer Membership card).

You take your new book to the town pool, and after you lay out your towel and apply your lotion, you read the first sentence, supplied by the book’s co-editor Andrew Gulli:

“There is always that case, the one that keeps me awake at night, the one that got away.”

You read on effortlessly. You’ve read this kind of story before—a mystery based on regret and lost opportunity, with redemption waiting for our heroes on the other side—and you can’t wait to see what these authors do with it.

When the book begins, Rosemary Thomas is being put to death for the murder of her husband Christopher, a curator at a San Francisco art museum and serial philanderer who was found decomposing in an iron maiden that was shipped to Germany.

At the execution is Detective Jon Nunn, who provided key testimony that helped convict Rosemary, despite his doubts that she committed the crime at all. (Since the book exists, you safely assume Nunn is on to something.)

The narrative flashes back two years, before the murder, to give you an idea of the kind of guy Christopher Thomas was, to describe his deteriorating marriage to Rosemary and his dalliances with pretty art colleagues in more detail, and to lay out the characters that will pop up later.

Then the book jumps to the present day. Rosemary has been dead 10 years and, in her will, requested a memorial service be held for a select audience, mainly family and acquaintances from the art world, all of whom you were introduced to in the opening chapters.

Nunn, now a disgraced former cop whose vocation these days is drinking, thinks the person really responsible for Christopher’s murder would arouse too much suspicion if he didn’t come. He views the memorial as a chance to unmask the real killer, granting justice to Rosemary and redemption for himself.

And so you read on, happily settling into the book’s rhythms. After you arrive at the climactic memorial scene reuniting all the book’s main players, you smile at the big plot twist, which you admit was deployed skillfully without coming out of nowhere.

By the end, you feel satisfied, your expectations met. You give credit to the editors for successfully merging 26 authors’ voices into one consistent voice, making your reading experience a seamless one.

But after you’ve left the pool and you’re back home, it occurs to you with some dismay that you’re hard-pressed to remember any author’s particular contribution (with the possible exception of Bones author Kathy Reichs, who provides police and forensic reports about the deceased). You open random pages and realize you can’t tell who wrote which chapter.

The book, you conclude, is something of a contradiction: you were afraid that the myriad voices would lead to a fractured narrative, but in fact, by making the voices uniform, the editors unwittingly subverted the big selling point of the whole enterprise.

There is nothing tonally different from, say, the chapter written by Diana Gabaldon (who writes the fantastical Outlander series) to the one offered by Jeff Lindsay (who created everyone’s favorite serial killer Dexter Morgan). There is nothing that puts an individual stamp on each installment or leads you to seek out an author’s work based on her contribution here.

You also start wondering what No Rest for the Dead might have looked like if far more unique mystery/thriller authors such as James Ellroy and Don Winslow had participated. Would they have put a fresh spin on the story, or would their voices have also been reined in?

Then you feel bad for bashing a book that seems to have been a three-year labor of love. One written for charity, no less. What you were promised—a fast-paced murder mystery filled with action and suspense—is what was delivered. So stop your grousing.

You might have been forgiven for expecting something more memorable given the number of A-list authors involved, but you can’t blame them for producing in tandem the same kind of book they produce individually.