Review

No Certain Rest

by Jim Lehrer



On a single sunny September afternoon in 1862 more than 20,000 men
died at the battle of Antietam during the American Civil War. In
the face of such carnage, what's one more corpse? In Jim Lehrer's
NO CERTAIN REST, Parks Department archeologist Don Spaniel
discovers the decaying skeleton of a Civil War soldier; but this
soldier doesn't fit the profile of the rest of Antietam's dead. Why
is he wearing the identification tags of a soldier who died miles
away and months before the battle? Why were his hands tied behind
his back? Who took the time and trouble to bury him during one of
the goriest battles ever fought on American soil?

These questions haunt Dr. Spaniel, and when he turns up an
eyewitness account of a regimental murder, he knows these remains
are the end result of a tragic story. As he struggles to put the
pieces together, he encounters resistance from the descendants of
the troubled Connecticut regiment who brought their hometown
resentments into battle with them. There are also the forensic
challenges of working with remains nearly 150 years old and the
difficulties at Dr. Spaniel's job as the case consumes more and
more of his time. What an archeologist working at Antietam might
have to do that's more relevant than exhuming new remains from the
Civil War is not entirely clear.

Unfortunately for the reader, Dr. Spaniel's conundrum remains
largely an intellectual one. None of the characters in the present
or the past are developed any further than they absolutely have to
be to keep the story moving. The author has a particularly
irritating habit of wheeling out experts --- a military historian,
a librarian, a forensic anthropologist --- who give Dr. Spaniel the
benefits of their expertise and are then dropped from the story as
abruptly as they arrived. As it has formed his entire professional
career, why isn't Dr. Spaniel an expert on the battle of Antietam?
What has he been doing with his time that he has to go to a
military historian for basic facts on the battle that purportedly
fills his working hours? Perhaps Mr. Lehrer wrote a colorful speech
about the gruesome terrors of Antietam and needed a mouth to put it
in? The most awkward moments of the book are when the author
attempts to include women. I wish he hadn't bothered, for it leaves
the reader with lines like, "Romance with Faye Lee Sutton was
something to think about later. There was archeology to do first."
Dr. Spaniel, unsurprisingly, is a bachelor.

The first two-thirds of the book comprise Dr. Spaniel's search for
the man who once fleshed out the skeleton he found. The last third
covers his trip to Connecticut to break the unsavory news to the
victim's and murderer's descendants. Conveniently enough, they both
live in the same town and are quite well versed in their
great-grandfathers' Civil War experiences. It's not quite as
convenient as a 150-year-old written confession to murder turning
up, but that was in the first part of the book. The two present-day
Connecticut men, who are living an odd extension of their
forebears' rivalry, react bizarrely to the new evidence Dr. Spaniel
brings with him, and the book ends on a strange note of new
violence.

The information presented in NO CERTAIN REST concerning
anthropology, archeology, and the Civil War is quite sound, but
there is no realistic emotional aspect to the story and that is a
pity. They are fascinating remains, but Mr. Lehrer has not breathed
any life into them.

Reviewed by Colleen Quinn on January 22, 2011

No Certain Rest
by Jim Lehrer

  • Publication Date: May 13, 2003
  • Paperback: 222 pages
  • Publisher: Random House Trade Paperbacks
  • ISBN-10: 0812968220
  • ISBN-13: 9780812968224