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Saturday, February 28, 2015

Jess Walter

At a glance
Over Tumbled Graves
by Jess Walter

Regan Books
416 pages, $7.50

Like most of us, Jess Walter takes the Spokane Falls for granted.

Like any opportunistic writer, though, he made that tendency the heart of his first novel, "Over Tumbled Graves" (Regan Books, 416 pages, $7.50).

And like any opportunistic reading group, the Spokesman-Review Book Club will read "Over Tumbled Graves" as its April selection.

If there's one thing that Walter knows, it's Spokane. He grew up here, graduated from East Valley High School in 1983 and then earned a bachelor's degree from Eastern Washington University. He was a staff writer for The Spokesman-Review and was part of the reporting team that covered the 1992 siege at Ruby Ridge in North Idaho.

That event inspired Walter to write his first book, a nonfiction look at the whole story of U.S. marshals, Randy Weaver and his family, FBI sharpshooters, national news coverage and North Idaho back roads jammed with cops, protesters, gawkers and the reporters who recorded the whole mess.

Walter found himself intrigued by the whole scene.

"From the very beginning of this case, I wanted to write a book on it," he said in a 1995 interview.

From there, Walter went on to write (or ghost write) memoirs of O.J. Simpson prosecutor Christopher Darden and Olympic sprinter Michael Johnson.

But he wanted to write fiction. And when he did, he looked homeward for material - at his hometown's falls, at the city itself and at the river that runs through it.

"For me, it began and ended with the river," Walter says. "That's where I used to walk when I was thinking."

"Over Tumbled Graves" tells the story of a serial killer who murders women and dumps their bodies in or near the Spokane River. But it's no mere mystery novel. Walter's protagonists, mainly the Spokane police officers who track the killer down, are portrayed as real people instead of stock Elmore Leonard or Carl Hiaasen type characters.

And throughout the book, Walter gives us one scene after the next in which characters make their way through their daily existence oblivious to the evil around them, with only the natural setting serving as witness.

Take this scene, early on, when Officer Caroline Mabry is on a stakeout to catch a drug dealer: "Nearby, conversations rose and blended - a couple's charmed declarations, teenage pleas, some hushed conspiracy from men in suits. On the other side of the bridge, the transient eased up from the ground and began moving forward as the sun edged away from thin cloud cover, lighting the park and river as if a curtain were being drawn."

Mabry, by the way, is central to the plot of Walter's second novel, "Land of the Blind."

"In Over Tumbled Graves," though, the river and the falls they produce - falls that we can hardly see - never ceases being Walter's focus.

"And that's sort of metaphorical of Spokane," Walter says. "It was metaphorical of the idea that these women were being killed in this beautiful, friendly, nice place that had a seething core to it."

Whatever he was trying to do, it's worked on more than a local level.

Sure, there's the one book group that meets at the Spokane Club, the one that printed up maps based on the book.

"They had a little tour," Walter says, "and they gave me a copy. It was really cool."

But more important to his career, Walter's third novel, "Citizen Vince," is due out in hard-back in September. At the same time, the first two novels will be reissued in paperback.

And taken together, the three make a collection of sorts, according to Walter's editor.

"He's taken to calling it the 'Spokane Crime Thriller Trilogy,' " Walter says, "which is a great thing to do after the fact."

He notes that Mabry isn't in the third book. But, he says, "There are recurring characters and certainly recurring themes."

Most of all, though, it feels like a natural place to end.

"It's funny, when I look back - and you do these things in hindsight - it does feel like a completed thing," Walter says. "And the thing that I started with in 'Over Tumbled Graves' was the fact that we live in a city whose economics is backward, whose culture is sometimes stunted, and yet it remains really fascinating and a great place, almost in spite of itself."

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