How many best-selling thriller writers does it take to change a lightbulb?
That question springs to mind with the publication of No Rest for the Dead, an artfully constructed page-turner of a novel with chapters from 26 top names in contemporary crime fiction. “The lineup of writers who have contributed to this mystery is akin to the Murderers’ Row of the 1927 New York Yankees,” crows David Baldacci in his lively introduction to the book. “There is not a weak spot in the bunch.”
True enough. The roster includes Jeffrey Deaver, Lisa Scottoline, Alexander McCall Smith, Faye Kellerman and John Lescroart — a deep bench indeed. But the writing of novels is generally thought to be a solitary pursuit, not a team sport. So the wealth of talent rounded up to create No Rest for the Dead invites the question: Are 26 heads better than one?
The story opens on death row in a California prison, as museum curator Rosemary Thomas — convicted of murdering her crooked, philandering husband — is prepped for execution by lethal injection. Witnessing the agonizing procedure is a small, embittered circle of Rosemary’s friends and relatives: her drunken, feckless brother; a beautiful, haunted artist; and a crusading newspaper reporter. Not one of them believes the condemned woman is guilty.
The death scene is especially hard on homicide detective Jon Nunn, who has come to suspect that Rosemary was framed. Nunn’s misgivings have already eaten away at his career and his marriage, and as the grim sentence is carried out, he finds himself overcome with remorse. “An innocent woman was executed,” Nunn declares. “I was the one who helped make it happen … part of my life ended too.”
Rosemary’s execution, we soon discover, is both the catalyst that drives the novel’s plot and the hinge that connects its two distinct halves. A large chunk of the action takes place in 1998, tracking the sinister events leading to the murder of Rosemary’s husband, Christopher, and the discovery of his decomposed body in an ancient “iron maiden” torture device (essentially a vertical metal coffin lined with spikes). A later section, set in the present day, centers on a memorial service to mark the 10th anniversary of Rosemary’s death, during which the various players in the drama assemble one last time under the cynical gaze of Jon Nunn.
It’s a solid plot but a flexible one, giving each of the 26 contributors ample room to work. Watching these seasoned professionals play off one another is a lark, even as they each put their individual stamp on the material. T. Jefferson Parker and Lori Armstrong provide the type of strong, quirky character studies that make their own books so enjoyable. Matthew Pearl and Diana Gabaldon, best known for their historical novels, show themselves to be perfectly at home in a modern setting. Kathy Reichs, whose forensics-heavy novels inspired the TV series Bones, goes so far as to supply an autopsy report detailing the “liquefied organs and putrefied brain” of the unfortunate Christopher Thomas. Better still, if you’ve been late to the party on such authors as Jeff Abbott and Jonathan Santlofer, No Rest for the Dead lets you sample the tight, suspenseful prose you’ve been missing.
Photo courtesy of Harald Sund/Getty Images
This type of tag-team storytelling — known as a serial or “round robin” novel — has been tried many times, with varying degrees of success. A 1969 collective effort, Naked Came the Stranger, was a high-profile spoof of the vulgar potboilers of the day. Famously bad and intended as such, it landed on The New York Times best-seller list. Perhaps the most famous example is The Floating Admiral, a collaboration among the members of Britain’s legendary Detection Club back in 1931, which featured such august contributors as Agatha Christie and G. K. Chesterton. As Dorothy L. Sayers explained in her introduction to that novel, each writer was obliged to construct his or her installment with a “definite solution in view,” and to “deal faithfully with all the difficulties left for his consideration by his predecessors.”
No Rest for the Dead is crafted along similar lines. The editors — Andrew and Lamia Gulli, a brother-and-sister team — wanted to give their contributors plenty of latitude without permitting the project to slide into chaos. After furnishing a general outline and some central plot twists, they backed off and let the writers freely spatter their ink. “They were asked not to mess things up for the writers who wrote after them,” Andrew Gulli told AARP The Magazine. “Serial novels get messy when every author tries to write the most pivotal chapter in the book. That’s how you wind up with 15 murders in 15 chapters.” The No Rest crew has neatly sidestepped this trap, yielding a surprisingly fluid, fast-paced thriller that stylishly overcomes the “too-many-cooks” syndrome. “Talk about checking your ego at the door!” Gulli says. “They were incredible.”
As he and Lamia struggled to assemble the pieces of this editorial jigsaw, Gulli admits, frustrating blockages did occur. But an intensely personal motivation helped them see the project through: “All proceeds [excluding contributor fees] are going to the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, the disease that killed our mother in 1997,” he explains. “For the past four years, No Rest has meant just that — literally no rest after work — but the fight against cancer made it more than worthwhile.”
The Gullis’ heartfelt cause is reason enough to pick up a copy of No Rest for the Dead. Once you do, you’ll find 26 solid arguments to keep reading to the end.
Daniel Stashower is the Edgar-winning author of The Beautiful Cigar Girl.
Also of interest: Crime writer Jo Nebso spins funny tales for kids.