Many journalists achieve success by reporting the facts accurately but unimaginatively—which makes their departures from nonfiction challenging and often unsuccessful. Jim Lehrer is respected as host of PBS’s The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer, and his fiction has gained its own following. Unfortunately, his 13th novel, No Certain Rest, doesn’t reach the caliber of his reporting.
The lack of certainty implied by the title extends to the work, which is in limbo between fiction and fact. It’s the story of archaeologist Don Spaniel, who stumbles onto an unsolved Civil War mystery. The mystery unravels slowly through the forensic investigation of an unidentified body found dressed in Union blue near the infamous Burnside Bridge at Antietam.
Lehrer places his fictional characters among real-life Civil War regiments, commanding officers, battles, and settings. Ultimately, the historical elements—such as excerpts from a Union soldier’s diary—prove more engrossing than Lehrer’s weakly drawn, simplistic characters. This is largely due to the author’s ineptitude at employing interesting, colorful language. He describes the pompous Don Spaniel as having “archeological emotions”—pretty unsurprising, considering the man’s occupation. Most of Lehrer’s attempts at insight are equally banal: “Don stared hard at this man. What can you tell about a person’s soul from a photograph? What kind of man were you really, Albert Randolph? Were you a troubled spirit even before Antietam, before Burnside Bridge . . . ?”
The mystery plot is a good idea, but because the clues to its solution are blatantly laid out from the start, there’s little drama or suspense. In the end, the newsman in Lehrer fares better than the artist. He should stick to the facts.