Sun Valley Sheriff Finds Murder On The Mountain

Sun Valley Sun

A red sun sets over the Sun Valley Resort ski area near Sun Valley, Idaho, where author Ridley Pearson sets his Walt Fleming thriller series. Elaine Thompson/AP Images hide caption

itoggle caption Elaine Thompson/AP Images

From assassins out to kill a potential presidential candidate to thieves crashing an auction of costly wines, Sun Valley, Idaho, criminals often come from the outside — and when they do, it's fictional Sheriff Walt Fleming's job to clean things up.

Walt Femling, Ridley Pearson i i

Blaine County Sheriff Walt Femling (left), the inspiration for author Ridley Pearson's Sheriff Walt Fleming, advises Pearson (right) on the technical details of his crime novels. Ben Bergman/NPR hide caption

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Walt Femling, Ridley Pearson

Blaine County Sheriff Walt Femling (left), the inspiration for author Ridley Pearson's Sheriff Walt Fleming, advises Pearson (right) on the technical details of his crime novels.

Ben Bergman/NPR

But Fleming isn't all fiction. Writer Ridley Pearson, who has written four thrillers starring the sheriff, says he based his hero on Walt Femling, the real sheriff of Sun Valley and usually the first person to look at Pearson's finished novels.

Their names are nearly identical, but the two Walts don't actually have that much in common — apart from sort of looking alike. In the second book of the series, Killer View, Pearson addresses Fleming's — and Femling's — looks when fictional Walt catches his reflection in a car window: "No one had ever called him handsome; the closest he'd gotten was 'good looking' — and that from a woman that no longer shared his bed. He blamed his sleepless nights on her."

You'd think it would be difficult to have a best-selling author write about you like that, but Femling takes it all in stride.

"People come up to me and they say, 'Hey, I just took a trip, I got books on tape, and I feel like I know you so much better now.' And I want to tell them, 'Do you realize that's fiction?' " Femling says. "You know, that's not really who I am."

Searching For Sun Valley's Demons

Femling's fans would probably have better luck tracking the similarities between the real Sun Valley and the one featured in Pearson's novels — both rugged mountain towns known for their glamorous resorts. In Pearson's books, criminal visitors often force the sheriff to ignore the locals in favor of VIPs. The subsequent local resentment is based in what Femling describes as the very real tension between working-class Idaho and its high-profile visitors.

"It's what you have to police. You can go from [the] agricultural to the labor to the king of Jordan," says Femling — who this summer ran a motorcade for the king of Jordan and then rescued a woman who had run out of gas in the middle of the desert.

It's all part of the very real setting of Sun Valley — the one that draws tourists from around the world for its skiing, hiking and cycling. That setting also plays a significant role in Pearson's fiction, starting with the Wood River Valley and Idaho's Big Wood River, where Ernest Hemingway once fished and Pearson's characters still do.

Standing by the river, Pearson says his job is to bring out the danger of Sun Valley's beautiful landscape.

"One of the things about a river is that it looks tranquil," he says. "When this river is in its rage — which is late May, early June — it's an incredibly dangerous body of water. What's tranquil today is tomorrow's demon, and my job is really to find the demons."

The demons of the Big Wood River are front and center in Pearson's newest Sun Valley book, In Harm's Way. The novel opens with the river flooded and riddled with fallen trees, and Fleming's sometime love interest, Fiona Kenshaw, driving across a bridge. Suddenly, Fiona spots a child's arm reaching out of a tree in the river.

Pearson says he got the idea for the drowning from his own experience on the water.

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Bald Mountain serves as the backdrop for much of the action in Ridley Pearson’s Sun Valley thrillers. Ben Bergman/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Ben Bergman/NPR
Bald Mountain

Bald Mountain serves as the backdrop for much of the action in Ridley Pearson’s Sun Valley thrillers.

Ben Bergman/NPR

"I have actually been out inner-tubing with friends and had a friend snagged and caught," he says. "You get sucked under very fast and you get held there and you drown. Because I'd had that experience, I thought I'd roll it into one of the books."

Another local experience that gets rolled into Pearson's books is that of the avalanche. On his way up nearby Bald Mountain, Pearson points out the scars that avalanches have left behind when they rolled down the mountain in winter, often catching deer and elk whose carcasses don't show up until the spring.

"As a crime writer, I couldn't help but see a human body taking that same fall," Pearson says. "In In Harm's Way, I actually have a body being discovered on the side of the road in that slash pile of debris that precedes an avalanche. So in this case I have a group of Boy Scouts who are keeping that area of the highway clean, and they find more than litter on the side of the road."

The View From Bald Mountain

From the top of Bald Mountain — about 9,000 feet up — Sun Valley is a tiny island surrounded by a sea of wild land, dark forests and faraway glaciers that all play dangerous parts in Pearson's plots. Those parts all come together at the real Sun Valley Lodge, a hotel built in the '30s by railroad man Averell Harriman.

The walls of the lodge document the history of its VIP visitors through pictures of a young and handsome Harriman skiing with the likes of Gary Cooper and other movie stars who helped to make the resort famous.

Ridley Pearson i i

Ridley Pearson is the author of more than 25 crime fiction novels. Timathea Shays hide caption

itoggle caption Timathea Shays
Ridley Pearson

Ridley Pearson is the author of more than 25 crime fiction novels.

Timathea Shays

Pearson says the glamour the lodge brought to the small mountain town made it a natural nucleus for his stories.

"It houses all these people that [have] money," he says. "They can be good people and they can be bad people, and so it gives me a place to pull all my people together. It's kind of a centerpiece; it's the lazy Susan of the books. I can pick all my little dishes off of the lodge and nosh them off."

Despite his interest in the ritzier side of town, Pearson still considers himself part of the Sun Valley proletariat. He says he knows very nice, wealthy people who live in the valley — but he doesn't write about them because it's more fun to write about the others.

"There are people who want to fly their helicopter [to] their house. That doesn't sit real well with people who've lived here 20 years," he says. "So there are conflicts that have arisen out of this culture clash."

Between masters of the universe vs. mountain ranges, haves vs. have-nots, old timers vs. outlanders, there's plenty of clashing in Pearson's Sun Valley. It's a conflict that works for Pearson — and one he thinks will keep working.

"This is a series, and when you envision a series, you're envisioning basically a several-thousand-page story, and you need themes and threads that are going to carry through," he says. "So you could push each of these off a cliff every time and start the engine all over, but I like it when the character is growing, the town is growing, the conflict is growing."

And with the newest installment of the Walt Fleming series just out, Pearson's Sun Valley is growing strong.

Excerpt: 'In Harm's Way'

In Harm's Way
In Harm's Way
By Ridley Pearson
Hardcover, 400 pages
Putnam Adult
List price: $25.95

Glancing out the windshield and beyond the four-lane concrete bridge, Fiona spotted a log with flailing arms. Human arms. A child's arms, struggling up through the river's rushing water, held down by a tangle of branches.

Fiona instinctively reached out to block her passenger from hitting the dash while simultaneously slamming on the brakes. Her Subaru skidded, drifting into the breakdown lane just past the bridge. She set the emergency brake and released her seat belt in a single motion, her feet already on the asphalt. She crossed four lanes of busy traffic amid a flurry of horns and the high-pitched cries of biting rubber.

Over it all, she heard her passenger, Kira, calling out her name and she glanced back to see Kira hoisting her camera bag high in the air. Fiona gestured her back, but Kira ignored it and pressed forward, darting through gaps in the traffic. More tire squeals. A man crudely cursed from his black pickup as he avoided Kira by inches, careening off the roadway and onto the dirt shoulder, throwing up twin rooster tails.

Fiona ignored him, scampering down the bank, and waded into the shallow, painfully cold water at the river's edge. The fist-sized, slippery round stones of the river bottom made her look drunk as she charged into the more swiftly moving, knee-deep water. She glanced left, timing the approach of the floating logs, preparing to dive.

The limbs of the first of four logs struck her, knocking her off balance, and she fell. They scraped across her back, tearing her shirt and dragging her down under. She struggled out of the grasp of the tangled branches and gasped for air as she resurfaced. Finding her balance, she dodged the next log. And the next.

Barreling toward her came the final tree: the one with the human arms she'd seen upstream. It bore down on her, a tongue of torn wood aimed like a lance.

She no longer saw the arms thrashing. For an instant, she wondered if she'd seen them at all.

The approaching tree was well over a foot thick and likely weighed hundreds of pounds. Driven by the force of June runoff, it would hit her like a battering ram.

Kira, now at river's edge, again screamed, "F-i-o-n-a! No!"

From the same direction, Fiona heard a splash — the driver of the pickup now thundering out toward her.

The wide spread of pine boughs seemed aimed to sweep her off her feet once again. Distracted, she'd lost her chance to move out of the way. She counted down in her head ...

Ten yards ... five yards ...

She drew a lungful of air and dove the four feet to the river bottom. Reached out and white-knuckled a mossy, large flat rock, keeping herself down. The limbs broomed over her, snagging her hair and yanking her head up and back. A chunk of hair tore loose. She screamed bubbles. Most of her shirt was torn off. She one-handed the rock, protecting her face as the remaining limbs scraped raw the flesh of her forearm.

In her blurred vision appeared a child's pale bare foot. Fiona let go of the rock, grabbed the ankle with both hands and followed up the leg to the child's waist, planting her feet in the maze of rocks on the river bottom and propelling herself up out of the water and into the snarl of tree branches. The tree limbs whipped and dug into her arms and face, demanding she release the child, but she would not let go.

At last, the tree passed and Fiona opened her eyes to see a little girl's terrified eyes gazing back at her. The girl blinked and coughed and Fiona felt tears spring to her eyes. Alive! The driver of the pickup appeared, lunging through the coursing water and extending an arm to Fiona, who held on to the crying child like life itself.

A smattering of applause arose from a small gathering of onlookers, camera phones extended, all of whom had pulled to the side of the road to help. Behind them towered the greening mountains that surrounded Ketchum and Sun Valley, above them the azure sky that had helped name this place.

Fiona held the child high in an effort to screen her own face, hoping to keep herself out of sight of the cameras.

The girl's crying was steady now — a joyous sound. As Fiona briefly lost her balance to the uneven river bottom, the girl clutched her with an unexpected force.

"I won't let go," Fiona promised.

In the distance a siren wailed, an ambulance from St. Luke's Hospital less than a mile away. Someone had called 911. More applause as the pickup driver led her to dry ground and Fiona dropped to her knees, never relaxing her embrace of the child, who in turn pressed herself closer to her rescuer.

"You're okay. You're okay," Fiona whispered into the matted hair, as a dozen people rushed down the embankment and the pickup driver called out to give them room.

More cameras fired off shots, including her own, currently in Kira's hands. Too many cameras to ever control. She could imagine the images already being sent over the Internet. One moment, anonymous in a sleepy Idaho town. The next ... out there.

Helpless to do anything about it, she understood that this moment represented the saving of one life and quite possibly the loss of another: her own.

Reprinted from In Harm's Way by Ridley Pearson by arrangement with G.P. Putnam's Sons, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., Copyright 2010 by Ridley Pearson.