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Thursday, March 5, 2015

'Graves' a literary mystery

At a glance
Over Tumbled Graves
by Jess Walter

Regan Books
367 pages, $25

First of all, let's get clear on what ``Over Tumbled Graves,'' Jess Walter's first novel, is not about.

It's not about the Robert Yates serial killer case.

Yes, it is set in Spokane. Yes, it does focus on a couple of police detectives investigating a string of murders. And, yes, bodies are found strewn around Spokane (though mostly along the banks of the Spokane River).

So the similarities are unmistakable.

But ``Over Tumbled Graves'' is no more a study of the Yates case than it is a straight police procedural. It's more of a literary mystery, an intentional cross between straight fiction and genre suspense.

This is no easy concept to grasp for some readers, especially for the reviewer, who clearly didn't get it. So it's conceivable that Walter, a successful writer of nonfiction, wasn't quite able to pull off his initial attempt at literary make-believe.

But if you approach ``Over Tumbled Graves'' with the right attitude, you're likely to discover something: Walter boasts a superior sense of character along with an assured feel for the pulse of Spokane.

The latter should come as no surprise. A former Spokesman-Review reporter, Walter grew up in and around the Lilac City, and it shows. From one site to the next, he takes us on a virtual city tour.

It's mostly a tour that delicate souls typically don't travel.

Spokane cops Caroline Mabry and Alan Dupree take that trip every day. Their Spokane is a dark world that haunts every aspect of their lives, casting all that they do and much of who they are in its own somber light.

Dupree is the veteran, a cynical joker his fellow cops call ``Officer Philosopher.'' He's a smart guy, but, separated from his wife and consumed by his feelings for Mabry, he's seriously distracted from his job as lead detective on the serial killer task force.

Mabry is a patrol cop. At 36, she's a dozen years younger than Dupree and the same number of years older than her live-in boy-toy. Burdened by the memory of having shot a man dead during a domestic violence incident, and further pulled off-center by a mother dying of cancer - not to mention her own conflicting feelings for Dupree - Mabry gets drawn into the serial killer case by forces she's not completely aware of.

The characters around them are mostly incidental, except for a killer named Lenny Ryan, who has a murderous task of revenge to complete, and a young prostitute whom Walter uses to pull together the novel's various story lines.

In fact, although the plot revolves around the search for the killer, the investigation is little more than backdrop. Walter is more interested in the longings that each of his characters feels, and the relief that each searches for, sometimes desperately.

The plot does tend to meander. And Walter's prose sometimes strains a bit too hard: ``The river cleansed the city, carried away its debris, its sump and its suicides.''

At other times, though, it's creatively graphic: ``(T)hey both saw what appeared to be a man constructed of balloons tangled in the metal ribs of the swather, his body bloated and unrecognizable, his clothes long since torn away, his flesh washed clean of features and bleached the color of the mud flats.''

But Walter's real talent is in his ability to meld his strengths - geography and character: ``The calf had fallen into what Angela called a coulee, what Lenny's dad had called a draw. Those were the kinds of differences between Washington and California, little gaps within the names of things that shook Lenny's confidence that he would ever completely fit here.''

Moreover, he's dead on when it comes to delving into the essential makeup of his characters. Mabry can look at a plastic doll pulled from the river and ponder questions of perception and reality. Dupree can sit in front of his estranged wife's house and fantasize about ``protecting the people inside without having to deal with them.'' Ryan can daydream of falling with Mabry over Spokane Falls, ``the two of them drawn over the edge together and drifting away, out of their misery and into sleep.''

Walter is particularly adept at capturing the essence of his native city, where only those who live here know how to pronounce its name correctly, where the most striking geographical treasure - the river - is taken far too much for granted, and where first dates usually feature conversations about why ``Everyone was either in the process of leaving or apologizing for not leaving yet.''

Walter's best-known book, ``Every Knee Shall Bow,'' is a riveting retelling of the Ruby Ridge incident. As fiction, ``Over Tumbled Graves'' is hardly its match.

But it's a good start for a new novelist. And it's an excellent addition to the literature of Spokane.

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