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).