Saturday, July 9, 2011

26 crime writers, one story: genius or madness?

A few days ago I came across an interesting story about a new crime novel hitting shelves; NO REST FOR THE DEAD. What makes this crime novel unique is the author, or should I say, authors. There are 26 of them.

I've read crime novels written by two authors before (co-written ala James Patterson and his offsiders or a writing team who pen thrillers under a pseudonym, eg Michael Stanley, Jefferson Bass, Casey Hill, etc), but never one story written by 26 distinct authors. It's like a short story collection full of bestsellers and lesser-known talents, except they've all contributed to one continuous story rather than thematically-linked but unique short tales of their completely own devising.

As has been reported over the past few week or so, Strand Magazine's Andrew Gulli came up with the idea for a plot and initially invited 12 writers to contribute chapters of their own. "I had an idea about a woman who was executed for a crime she didn't commit," said Gulli. "So I wrote a prologue and handed it to the first author and he and the others started to write."

What Gulli got back was not enough to make a coherent novel, so he invited more writers and ended up with a total of 26. The list includes novelist Jeffery Deaver, best known for his Lincoln Rhyme series and now the latest authorized James Bond sequel, Alexander McCall Smith, Kathy Reichs, and many other bestselling authors. Like many of those short story collections, it's an interesting mix of some 'household name' crime writers, along with several other talented writers that are fairly well-known to hardcore crime fiction fans, but not so much to the average 'man or woman on the street'.

"If you add up the group of writers who have taken part in this book, you'll find they have sales of hundreds of millions of books," Gulli told Reuters. "In the history of publishing nothing like this has ever occurred."

NO REST FOR THE DEAD centers around Jon Nunn, a detective who helped convict a woman for murdering her husband, the curator at a San Francisco museum. But 10 years later he is convinced he got the wrong woman, although it is too late to save Rosemary - she was executed.

Nunn plans to gather everyone who was there the night Christopher Thomas died, and uncover what really happened, suspect by suspect. "But this is not another Agatha Christie, or her creation Hercule Poirot, where the group is gathered and the detective details the case and points the finger at the story's end," Gulli said of the novel. "There are flashbacks, and a policeman's life has been ruined. It is a tale of redemption after he made a huge mistake, and there is a real twist."

The project took Gulli four years, and his greatest challenges were finding authors willing to contribute for a nominal fee as well as keeping the style and story constant enough for it to be readable. "I think it's a very entertaining read," he said. "When we re-read it, we thought it had the best of all possible worlds in that you can still see the different styles." Here's the full line-up of contributing crime writers:
  • David Baldacci (Introduction)
  • Jeff Abbott
  • Lori Armstrong
  • Sandra Brown
  • Thomas Cook
  • Jeffery Deaver
  • Diana Gabaldon
  • Tess Gerritsen
  • Andrew F. Gulli
  • Peter James
  • J.A. Jance
  • Faye Kellerman
  • Raymond Khoury
  • John Lescroart
  • Jeff Lindsay
  • Gayle Lynds
  • Philip Margolin
  • Alexander McCall Smith
  • Michael Palmer
  • T. Jefferson Parker
  • Matthew Pearl
  • Kathy Reichs
  • Marcus Sakey
  • Jonathan Santlofer
  • Lisa Scottoline
  • R.L. Stine
  • Marcia Talley
I've read seven of those authors, and have another half-dozen or so on my bookshelves at home, waiting to be read. Quite a diverse bunch. It certainly sounds like an intriguing project, and in another 'plus', all proceeds will reportedly go to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. after Gulli and his sister, who helped edit NO REST FOR THE DEAD, lost their mother to the disease in 1997.

The Guardian reported that Peter James, chair of the Crime Writers' Association, contributed a crucial chapter to the novel, in which a decade-old diary is discovered, providing vital clues. "The hard thing was not knowing what any of the characters were like – none of us saw what the others had written," James told The Guardian. "I'm a very detailed plotter. A big part of my writing technique is seeding things into each chapter, and it was hard to not have that flexibility – I was writing it in a complete void. In a way it was harder than I thought, but in a way it was liberating."

Given that many of the publicity reports about NO REST FOR THE DEAD promote a big twist ending, I'm intrigued as to how well this will have been set up throughout the novel, given that reportedly each writer didn't know what the others had written (although they were provided with an outline for their chapter - perhaps Gulli made it clear what red herrings, foreshadowing, clues and other things needed to be woven it?)

The Telegraph noted that "There are precedents for this kind of chain-thriller. HarperCollins has recently reissued The Floating Admiral (1931), a collaboration between Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers, GK Chesterton and such less well-remembered names as Canon Victor L Whitchurch, creator of the "vegetarian railway detective" Thorpe Hazell. (Which of today's literary Ozymandiases will have been forgotten, I wonder, when No Rest for the Dead is reissued in 80 years' time?)".

Perhaps I'll have to keep an eye out for THE FLOATING ADMIRAL as well.

What do you think of the concept behind NO REST FOR THE DEAD? Does the 26-name author list make you more or less likely to give the crime novel a go? What have been some of your favourite author collaborations in the past? Comments welcome.

1 comment:

  1. I've read a couple of similar collaborations produced by the International Thriller Writer's Association called THE CHOPIN MANUSCRIPT and THE COPPER BRACELET. Not 26 authors but at least a dozen for each book (including Deaver who appears in this one). Both of them were fun romps, though the plots tended towards the ridiculous because, ultimately, no one wants to write the slow background chapters - everyone wants to write the action-packed chapters. It's not the kind of thing I'd want to read all the time but as a bit of fun (if a bit gimmicky) it's OK - ultimately though I think a short story anthology would be a much more satisfying introduction to what a reader might expect from those authors if they were to try something else by that person. I tried a couple of books by authors who had conributed chapters to THE CHOPIN MANUSCRIPT and didn't have a lot of success really - their contribution to the collective book was nothing like their 'normal' writing for obvious reasons,