The Barnes & Noble Review
Veteran journalist Jess Walter (Every Knee Shall Bow) has just written what might be termed the first postmodern serial killer story. In his debut novel, Over Tumbled Graves, Walter takes the standard elements of an overworked form -- the string of brutal killings, the protracted manhunt, the speculative, specialized psychological profiles -- and effectively turns them on their head.
Over Tumbled Graves -- a title derived from T. S. Eliot's The Wasteland -- begins in Spokane, Washington, in April 2001. (And April, as Eliot reminds us, is the cruelest month.) In the opening pages, a drug-related sting operation goes tragically wrong, and undercover operative Caroline Mabrey watches helplessly as one of her two targets pushes the other -- a small-time drug dealer -- into the rocky, churning rapids of the Spokane River and then makes his escape.
Police identify the escaped killer as Lenny Ryan, a recently paroled ex-convict. Lenny soon evolves into a one-man crime wave, murdering two more people within a 24-hour period. As the hunt for Lenny progresses, a parallel development takes place. The decaying body of a teenage prostitute is discovered in a shallow grave on the riverbank. The victim has been shot and strangled, and two $20 bills have been placed in her hand. Shortly afterward, a second, identical corpse turns up in the same location. When a third victim appears in the general vicinity, Spokane police draw the obvious conclusion and begin the process of tracking down a serial murderer.
Two deeply sympathetic figures dominate the subsequent manhunt. One is Caroline Mabrey, a fallible, intuitive detective haunted by her mother's recent death and by an assortment of disquieting memories. The other is Sgt. Alan Dupree, Caroline's friend and mentor, a flippant, old-fashioned policeman with personal issues of his own. As Mabrey and Dupree -- aided by a pair of headline-hunting, FBI-trained "experts" -- work through a maze of dead ends and inconclusive clues, they discover unexpected connections between Lenny Ryan's crime spree and the gradual accumulation of murdered prostitutes. Their investigation ultimately leads to a startling revelation in which the "rational" motives of a sane, calculating killer and the irrational behavioral patterns of a serial murderer meet and merge.
Over Tumbled Graves is an intellectually satisfying, psychologically acute novel that defies conventional expectations, breaking new ground in the process. It is also an involving, immensely readable book marked by credible characterizations and a steadily increasing narrative momentum. Jess Walter is clearly a writer worth watching. (Bill Sheehan)
Bill Sheehan reviews horror, suspense, and science fiction for Cemetery Dance, The New York Review of Science Fiction, and other publications. His book-length critical study of the fiction of Peter Straub, At the Foot of the Story Tree, has been published by Subterranean Press (www.subterraneanpress.com).
Read an Excerpt
Caroline Mabry was transfixed by falling water. For her, the river had other currents, pulling her to its banks when she was upset or distracted, when she wanted to lose herself. She did this most often at the falls -- the dramatic series of rocky, churning rapids at the center of her city. Determined upstream, even languid and eddied in places, the Spokane River began to tumble here, to froth and roil, and eventually to fall.
Sometimes the river's pull surprised Caroline. She would be running errands or jogging or riding her bike and suddenly find herself here, on the footbridge between the upper falls and the Monroe Street Dam. She was amazed by this place, by what it meant for a city to have at its heart a tumbling, roaring waterfall. Here, overwhelmed by scale, she could drift into epiphanies of scope and flow and believe that a river has a purpose more vital than transportation or power. The river cleansed the city, carried away its debris, itssump and its suicides. The river irrigated the long, gray wound of civilization. Over time she'd begun to bring her own chronic infections to the river, her random loneliness and cyclic despair, her isolation. And if she wasn't cured by the falls, her jagged anxieties were at least dispersed, drowned out by white water, dwarfed by boulders that jutted like broken bones from the river's skin.
Caroline paused on a footbridge over the falls, checked her watch, and finished crossing, pushing the baby stroller deeper into the park, over an embankment covered with people and blankets, Frisbees and Hacky Sacks, to a still arm of the river, dammed off from the rocky channel across the park as aplace for ducks and park benches, for lovers and quiet contemplation. The Spokane River was steel and steady here, gray, moving like molten metal between its banks. Caroline wondered what it meant to be more comfortable with the airy roar of the falls than with this pleasant meandering, this stillness. But she blinked away her doubts and concentrated, wheeling her stroller along the sidewalk, finding her place. Waiting.
At thirty-six, Caroline Mabry looked ten years younger and felt ten years older, with round green eyes and short brown hair that softened her tall, athletic build. She stood next to the stroller at the base of a wide footbridge and leaned against a piling to tie her new running shoes. Looking up, she made eye contact across the bridge with a transient who had been in the park all day, a transient in new running shoes. Then, as if operating from a checklist, Caroline stretched, bent at the waist in her nylon running suit, pushed away from the piling, checked on her baby, put on her sunglasses, and surveyed the park.
The park that day had a strange but familiar feel, very much like a map on a wall, with pins marking the major players. But it was also tinged with a fleeting déjà vu, a sensation Caroline had always imagined was akin to losing one's mind, attaching meaning to every movement. Looking around the park, she allowed herself to believe that none of it was real -- not the Frisbees, not the dogs, not even the river, and certainly not herself, a young mother out for a walk on a sunny day in the park.
Across the bridge, a businessman on a park bench paused to look up from his two-day-old Wall Street Journal, caught her eye, and smiled. Her own thoughts seemed deafening, as if everyone would know what she was thinking, and wonder how she knew the businessman had been there all day and that he was wearing the same brand of ninety-dollar running shoes as the transient, the same as she was.
The three -- Caroline with her baby, the transient with his pack, the businessman with his newspaper -- made a sort of triangle around the wide footbridge, Caroline on one side, the other two across the bridge. In the middle of the triangle, just over the bridge on the side of the businessman and the transient, was a sinewy black kid in baggy carpenter pants, a white T-shirt, untied cross-trainers, and a New York Giants football cap. His name was Kevin Hatch, but he went by the street name Burn, a fact that Caroline knew as well. If someone did share her thoughts, that person would be amazed at the things she knew, the nearsighted omniscience she had in the park that day, like a god who knows everything except what will happen next.
A voice crackled in Caroline's ear: "We're good. Go on the next buy."
Caroline sat down against a bridge piling with a paperback book and turned the page every minute or so. After five pages, she stood and checked her baby, then sat back down and turned more pages. Within ten minutes, a man had approached Burn, a man about forty, with shoulder-length hair, wearing khaki pants and a plain black T-shirt. He wore sunglasses, and Caroline was taken by the fact that she knew nothing about him. She watched Burn greet the man, first suspiciously, then warmly, as if the man had mentioned a mutual acquaintance to gain Burn's confidence. The man spoke and Burn listened, nodding a couple of times.
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.
They waited for Burn to reach out with a cupped hand to the man in khaki pants, a move repeated dozens of times each day --drugs going out in one handshake, cash coming back in the next. Over Tumbled Graves. Copyright © by Jess Walter. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.