I don’t suppose you ever forget your first psychopath.
Cory Bartel was arrested for beating his mother to death. But the police couldn’t find the weapon and during his trial, Cory’s 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 crime—kidnapping and torturing an exotic dancer. I was a newspaper reporter and on a slow day I went to the jail to interview Cory, figuring he’d 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 he’d gotten the idea watching America’s Most Wanted on television, that he’d 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 power—what he called “blue electricity”—run through his hands.
I wrote about his confession on the front page of my newspaper. While Cory couldn’t be tried again for his mother’s murder—that would be double jeopardy—the 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 furious.
“I told you I was going to write a story,” I said. “You knew this could happen.”
“Oh, I’m not mad about that,” he said.
“You got it wrong.”
“You said I hit her with a baseball bat.”
“But that’s what you told me,” I said.
“It wasn’t 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 wasn’t 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 downtown.
It’s 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, people’s 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 doesn’t care that you tell the world he’s 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 detective—Caroline Mabry—to 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 and—every few pages—compete with one other to solve the murders that I kept throwing at them.
There’s an old axiom in baseball: That’s why you play the game. Maybe that’s 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 Mabry’s 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 Caroline’s eyes why I have nightmares about the serial killers that I wrote about. It turns out I was right, in a way. These guys aren’t frightening because they are criminal masterminds or larger than life or supernatural. They’re frightening because they’re real: living, breathing human beings. They’re 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. I’m a novelist. I work in the imagination mines. And yet I have trouble picturing Robert Yates playing baseball with his boy—the way I play with mine, smiling, tossing the ball back and forth, reaching into the glove—all the while, knowing what is buried beneath his feet.
That’s 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. He’s 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 don’t think Cory has any money. I keep Cory’s date of release on my calendar, just in case he’s still mad about the whole bat business.
I rarely talk to psychopaths anymore—at least, none that I am aware of.
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 I’m 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 that’s 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 you’ve just created is that question of idea, of motivation.
“So you wrote a book? What’s it about?”
That’s a fair question. With Over Tumbled Graves, I find myself giving a lot of different answers. I say, “It’s about how close we live to evil.” When that starts sounding pretentious, I say, “It’s about the ever-present threat of sex criminal in our society.” When that comes off as preachy, I say, “It’s 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
Published by Hodder Stoughton
Rel: 7th February 2002