Over Tumbled Graves is set on Spokane, Washington, a city noted for the waterfalls along the river that runs through it. The opening of the book is set at these falls when a young police detective, Caroline Marby, must chose between saving the life of the drug dealer or shooting the buyer who threw him into the falls. This choice, between death and the preservation of life, is one of many threads that run through this book and make it a rich treat for the tired fan of the serial killer genre.
Caroline, with her friend and mentor Alan Dupree, becomes involved in a hunt for a killer who leaves his prostitute victims strangled and shot, grasping their last payment in their hands. The chain of evidence points to Caroline's escaped drug buyer, Lenny Ryan, as the killer but he remains somehow intangible, appearing and disappearing almost at will, with an agenda which never seems quite clear. As Caroline and Alan investigate, their present relationship as not quite lovers hovers between them. He is married and Caroline has a live-in. The tension between the two reflects the rapids that run through the city, a separation that can never be truly bridged.
As the body count mounts, Dupree, who is heading the investigation, is forced to call in FBI profilers. His sarcastic intolerance of these men and unwillingness to use modern investigative techniques puts him at odds with his superiors, and he is eventually removed from the case. This widens the division between him and Caroline as she must pick up many of the threads Dupree left hanging. Dupree, trying to deal with his frustration and a failing marriage, returns to the streets that he started on.
The book is also the tale of the conflict between the two profilers. Curtis Blanton, a retired FBI profiler, sarcastic and sharp witted is an almost unwilling participant. For him the case has too low a body count to be worth the efforts of a profiler. Jeffrey McDaniel, on loan from the FBI is condescending and overblown. For him the case is an opportunity to show up Blanton. Neither man adds much to the investigation, although their rivalry quickly becomes the comic relief of the story.
Caroline, caught between the profilers, as she is between Dupree and his replacement Spivey, must piece together the truth out of the tiniest of shreds and suspicions. The final answer is unexpected and complex. To say that Jess Walter is a master of misdirection would be a serious understatement.
The action flows beautifully, building slowly from the moment the first body is discovered. Hardly sparse, there is still little waste in the telling, although I wish that Walter had spent just a bit more effort on the setting. Other than the river itself, Spokane and its environs never quite come to life the way the characters do. The story is a melancholy one, turning on tragedy and loss and the tiny steps that lead one from self-interest to evil. Redeeming qualities are found in unexpected places and the reader is left with much to consider in the end. Highly recommended.