BUY JESS WALTER'S BOOK
|OVER TUMBLED GRAVES
|I dont suppose you ever
forget your first psychopath.
Bartel was arrested for beating his mother to death. But the police
couldnt find the weapon and during his trial, Corys
lawyer convinced the jury that she might have just fallen and hit
her head. Cory was found not guilty and was allowed to go free. A
year later, when I tracked him down, Cory was in jail for another
crimekidnapping and torturing an exotic dancer. I was a
newspaper reporter and on a slow day I went to the jail to interview
Cory, figuring hed tell me to get lost. Instead, we talked for
a while and then he took a deep breath and confessed that, indeed,
he had beaten his own mother to death, that hed gotten the
idea watching Americas Most Wanted on television, that hed
just wanted to see if he could get away with it, and that, at the
precise moment he hit her with a bat, he felt a surge of powerwhat
he called blue electricityrun through his hands.
I wrote about his confession on the front page of my newspaper.
While Cory couldnt be tried again for his mothers murderthat
would be double jeopardythe prosecutor announced that, if my
story turned out to be correct, Cory could now face an exceptional
sentence on the kidnapping and torture charges. Next day, Cory was
I told you I was going to write a story, I said. You
knew this could happen.
Oh, Im not mad about that, he said.
You got it wrong.
You said I hit her with a baseball bat.
But thats what you told me, I said.
It wasnt a baseball bat, Cory said. It was
a softball bat.
I was thinking about villains, and especially serial killers, when
I set out to write my first novel, Over Tumbled Graves. It seemed
that in the wake of Thomas Harris, American crime novels and movies
had gotten caught up in a kind of cold war of cruelty. I worried
that all the energy in crime novels was spent dreaming up bad guys
who were stranger, more brutal and at the same time more stylized
than Hannibal Lecter.
Killers had to be not on only dangerous and twisted, but
super-intelligent, possibly even supernatural. They had to be the
most interesting characters in the book and it was even better if
they were people with wit and style and aplomb. They had to be
criminal masterminds, larger than life.
Well, in my experience, that simply wasnt the case.
Over Tumbled Graves is set in my hometown, Spokane, Washington a
mid-sized city of about 200,000 people four hours by car from
Seattle. An old mining and timber town, Spokane is best known for
its river and for the stunning set of waterfalls that dissect its
Its also known for its crime.
In nine years as a reporter in Spokane, I had the misfortune to
write about four serial killers and a couple dozen old-fashioned
nuts like Cory Bartel. As I began to write Over Tumbled Graves in
the fall of 1999, it seemed to me that the real psychopath had been
completely eclipsed by his fictional counterpart. Like cowboys and
Mafiosi, peoples image of these monsters seemed wholly
invented, a product of authorial boredom and third-act suspense.
But I kept bumping up against the real thing.
And so when I started, I wanted to wrest the serial killer back
from make-believe, to realistically portray the kind of broken,
weak-minded loser who preys on women on the fringe of society, the
kind of man who lived in my nightmares, the kind of man who was, in
some important and horrifying way, smaller than life.
I wanted to portray the kind of man who doesnt care that you
tell the world hes a murderer, but who gets mad when you
accuse him of using the wrong bat.
Novels never go quite where you expect. I invented a female
detectiveCaroline Mabryto register the horror of these
sex crimes (another detail Hollywood seemed to ignore: the sexual
nature of almost all serial killers.) I made her mentor Alan Dupree
cynical and edgy so I could make use of all the inappropriate jokes
that pop into my head. I called in an FBI profiler who was
egomaniacal and overrated because
well, because FBI profilers
are egomaniacal and overrated.
But when I turned those characters and a few others loose and gave
them some business along the Spokane River, they took off on me.
They ran in all directions. A couple went to New Orleans. Some
others tried to get on TV. They got in trouble and quit their jobs.
Some of them died. My characters seemed to have little regard for my
idea of returning the serial killer to the clutches of reality. They
wanted to sleep with one another, drink too much, ditch their wives
andevery few pagescompete with one other to solve the
murders that I kept throwing at them.
Theres an old axiom in baseball: Thats why you play the
game. Maybe thats why you keep typing, too, for the sheer
surprise, for what might happen, for that moment when your meek
characters inherit the Earth and start screwing it all up. When that
happens, it becomes their book. In this case, it is Caroline Mabrys
book, and I think it is her humor and her humanity that powered it.
So when my villain finally made his appearance, I saw through
Carolines eyes why I have nightmares about the serial killers
that I wrote about. It turns out I was right, in a way. These guys
arent frightening because they are criminal masterminds or
larger than life or supernatural. Theyre frightening because
theyre real: living, breathing human beings. Theyre
frightening because they are closer to me than I ever want to admit.
The last serial killer I wrote about was a former Army helicopter
pilot named Robert L. Yates. He was arrested just two weeks after I
finished writing Over Tumbled Graves. He lived only a few miles from
my house. He was married with kids. He admitted killing more than a
dozen women. He used to play baseball with his son on a strip of
grass beneath his bedroom window. Buried under that strip of grass
was one of his victims. Im a novelist. I work in the
imagination mines. And yet I have trouble picturing Robert Yates
playing baseball with his boythe way I play with mine,
smiling, tossing the ball back and forth, reaching into the gloveall
the while, knowing what is buried beneath his feet.
Thats what keeps me awake at night.
This is the happy ending.
Robert Yates is in jail. The police caught him because he picked up
his victims in a distinctive white Corvette. He pleaded guilty to a
dozen murders and is awaiting trial for two more. Hes a
suspect or a person-of-interest in countless other murders.
Cory Bartel is locked up too, with a couple of years left on his
sentence for kidnapping and torturing the exotic dancer. His brother
sued him in civil court for the death of their mother and won a
judgment, but I dont think Cory has any money. I keep Corys
date of release on my calendar, just in case hes still mad
about the whole bat business.
I rarely talk to psychopaths anymoreat least, none that I am
And in spite of my characters best efforts, in the end I did
what I set out to do: I wrote a literary crime novel in which I
registered both the ironic and the horrific, in which I wrote
realistically about serial killers and the whole nasty, cynical
industry that has sprung up around them.
One reviewer called Over Tumbled Graves the first post-modern
serial killer thriller. Okay.
Now Im hard at work on my next novel, waiting for the
characters to bum-rush me and tell me what that book is about.
I suppose thats just writing. An author starts with an idea
but the whole business goes best when the characters overwhelm the
ideas. And yet, still, the first question you face about this
complex world youve just created is that question of idea, of
So you wrote a book? Whats it about?
Thats a fair question. With Over Tumbled Graves, I find
myself giving a lot of different answers. I say, Its
about how close we live to evil. When that starts sounding
pretentious, I say, Its about the ever-present threat of
sex criminal in our society. When that comes off as preachy, I
say, Its about the way our culture co-opts even
something as horrible as a serial murder. I know what my
characters would say.
© 2001 Jess Walter