At first glance, No Rest for the Dead ’s reading line ‘twenty-six writers. One mystery’ intrigued me. How is it possible to integrate 26 different voices, styles, and visions into one fluid, suspenseful, and entertaining text? Sibling co-editors Andrew and Lamia Gulli not only successfully accomplished this task, but also pull together an engaging and pleasurable read.
Without forsaking the plot or each author’s individual creativity, No Rest for the Dead calls upon some of the mystery genre’s heavy-hitters, such as Sandra Brown, Jeffrey Deaver, R.L. Stine, and J.A. Jance. Although, I was unfamiliar with several authors such as Gayle Lynds and Jonathan Santlofer, their contributions managed to interest me in pursuing their other works. Perhaps sarcastically referring to the project, Marcus Sakey writes in his chapter, “collaborations don’t last. One Man is always the greater artist” (238). This novel approach, however, proves otherwise: No Rest for the Dead is an engaging mystery as well as an interesting study in collaboration. All proceeds from this text go to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, rendering this a worthy cause as well as a worthy read.
Greed, vengeance, punishment, and guilt are the central motivators for the characters within this book. The story begins with the execution of Rosemary Thomas, sentenced to die from lethal injection for the slaying of her husband Christopher Thomas. Rosemary was accused and convicted of stuffing his body into an iron maiden and shipping it abroad. The first half of the text aligns the readers to the Thomas’s dysfunctional marriage: Christopher is an arrogant, solipsistic, and adulterous art curator while Rosemary is a victimized and insecure helpmate.
As each writer takes hold of the story, readers are introduced to a swell of secondary characters, including Rosemary’s alcoholic brother, two of Christopher’s many mistresses, an estate lawyer, and a slew of conniving louts. The rapid introduction of these characters renders the first half of the novel somewhat disjointed. However, these characters also serve a larger purpose: they have their own loyalties to either Rosemary or Christopher, and thus their interpretations of Rosemary’s guilt or innocence becomes contextually paramount. Each chapter is quite short, disallowing the reader any comfort with the authors’ writing styles, but nonetheless communicating the necessary details that structure the plot and characterization.
The second half of the novel is drafted on the basis of binaries: guilt and innocence, loyalty and adultery, love and hate, good and evil. Primarily from the point of view of former-detective Jon Nunn, ten years have passed since the murder and execution. Nunn’s initial assessment of Rosemary’s guilt has changed—he now believes she was innocent and he himself is responsible for her murder/execution. As such, the second half of the mystery explores and extrapolates the details that seemed disconnected in the beginning and the implication of the secondary characters becomes the primary focus. As the readers are led through the brutal and ruthless lives of individuals often lauded for their exquisiteness and beauty, Nunn toils to distinguish between the truth and lies constructing the reality and veneer of the Thomas’s.
The area where this story becomes problematic pertains to gender roles and the strict gender dichotomy each character is prescribed. Throughout, women are vulnerable and victimized and upon occasional moments of empowerment relapse as their husbands’ consorts For the most part, women gain strength and self-worth from their sexual appeal.
For example, Rosemary recalls the moment when Christopher was no longer attracted to her and her consequential emotional despair: “once your husband stops looking at you, you begin to feel that the rest of the world has stopped looking as well” (179). Reestablishing the male gaze as the dominant gaze, the women in this book lack gumption, strength, and empowerment. They are nothing more than objects worth stealing or ornaments radiating a “pretty face” (140) and “youthful idealism” (112). The female characters do not contribute to the solving of the case, but are instead beautiful stock characters created to emphasize the masculine ideal.
As assumed, the men suit the dominant male gender stereotypes: they are virile, macho, and protectors of women and justice. Characters such as Christopher assert their masculinity by collecting mistresses and manipulating those he considers inferior: art dealers, his assistant, Rosemary’s brother, and Rosemary herself.
At times, it’s indiscernible whether Nunn is reinvestigating the murder because of personal and professional gain or to protect his wife and Rosemary. As Nunn reminds himself, “you need to beat him. For Sarah. For Rosemary” (235). Then Nunn remembers that he also has personal and professional incentives in solving the case, however secondary. Highlighted for their intellect, the male characters piece together the evidence, connect slight details, and solve the crime.
In fact, even the subplot’s crimes and violence are male oriented and exclude women all together. At certain times, these gender stereotypes become intolerable and render the characters flat and listless. This could be a negative effect of multiple authors and their lack of room to develop characters, or the authors’ inability to draft nuanced and complicated fictional personas.
On an interesting political side note, No Rest for the Dead does not try to conceal a socially significant question: is the death penalty a fair administration of justice or is the entire process inherently flawed? The questions surrounding Rosemary’s guilt eerily echoe the recent execution of Troy Davis in the state of Georgia and the paradoxical juxtaposition of state sanctioned death to democracy. Frequently, characters throughout the book question the validity of capital punishment and the implications of an innocent individual’s execution. Furthermore, the graphic details of the opening chapter suggests an inherent cruelty in the capital punishment process and the inevitably of juridical errors resulting in the loss of an innocent life.
This would benefit from an introduction or an afterward detailing the writing and collaboration process. I’m very interested in this book’s nuanced approach to storytelling and the series of steps it took to complete this project. For example, a mystery is said to be drafted from the end to the beginning – does this hold true for this text, how were the red herrings managed, did each author read the previous chapters before drafting their own, etc? Nonetheless, No Rest for the Dead provides an entertaining mystery facilitating a reader’s flirtation with redemption in both a fictional and realistic model.