Sun Valley Sheriff Finds Murder On The Mountain From assassins coming to kill a potential presidential candidate to thieves crashing an auction of costly wines, the stories in Ridley Pearson's crime thrillers may be fiction but their setting of Sun Valley, Idaho, is very real.
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Sun Valley Sheriff Finds Murder On The Mountain

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Sun Valley Sheriff Finds Murder On The Mountain

Sun Valley Sheriff Finds Murder On The Mountain

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Once again this summer, MORNING EDITION is exploring "Crime in the City." We're talking with crime novelists whose work illuminates the cities where the crimes take place - cities like London, Los Angeles or Shanghai. Today, we head for a very small city, the rugged and glamorous mountain resort town of Sun Valley, Idaho.

Writer Ridley Pearson has written four thrillers starring the sheriff of Sun Valley, and his hero is based on the real sheriff.

Linda Wertheimer met both the author and the lawman.

LINDA WERTHEIMER: Ridley Pearson calls his fictional sheriff Walt Fleming - only a slight change from the real man's name, Walt Femling. They're friends. Pearson considers Femling his first editor; he runs ideas by him.

Mr. RIDLEY PEARSON (Novelist): He's kind enough - usually - not to say: What a stupid idea, Ridley. But he, you know, just short of that. And then I go and do my work for a year, and Walt's the first guy to see the book.

WERTHEIMER: The two Walts are not really alike, although they sort of look alike. In the second book, "Killer View," Walt sees his reflection in the window of a pickup truck. Ridley Pearson writes: 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.

Sheriff Femling takes all that in stride. We went to the county jail to see him.

Sheriff WALT FEMLING (Sun Valley, Idaho): 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 that, do you realize that's fiction?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Sheriff FEMLING: You know, it's not really who I am.

WERTHEIMER: In Pearson's books, the criminals often show up at Sun Valley's most glamorous events: an assassin coming to a fundraiser for a woman who's a possible presidential candidate; thieves crashing an auction of costly wines. These vicious visitors force the sheriff to ignore the locals and protect the VIPs.

Sheriff Femling says that is not entirely fiction. There is real tension between working Idaho, and the very rich who come and go.

Sheriff FEMLING: You know, thats what you have to police. I mean, you can go from -you know, agricultural to, you know, the laborer, to the king of Jordan I had last week. So now, Im doing a motorcade to move the king of Jordan and his family around last week, and Im out on the desert for a lady who has run out of gas, you know, two hours away, that needs help.

(Soundbite of flowing river)

WERTHEIMER: Besides the real sheriff, the real place plays a big role in Pearson's fiction, starting with the Wood River Valley and the river itself. Hemingway fished there, and so do characters in Pearson's books. He took us to see it.

Mr. PEARSON: It's called the Big Wood River.

WERTHEIMER: So we're standing by the Big Wood River. There's a wild-rose bush right in front of me. It's very beautiful, and your job is to make it dangerous.

Mr. PEARSON: Yeah, my job is to bring out the danger. The danger is here. One of the things about a river is, it looks tranquil. 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.

WERTHEIMER: The flooded river, with trees floating in it, is in the first scene of Pearson's new book. His sometime-love interest, Fiona Kenshaw, is driving across a bridge. She sees a child's arm reaching out of a tree in the river.

Mr. PEARSON: I have actually been out inner-tubing with friends, and had a friend snagged and caught, and 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. So at the beginning of "In Harm's Way," Fiona just happens to glance over a bridge. She sees a tree coming down - but it has a live, human arm sticking up from it, and she realizes somebody is under that tree.

WERTHEIMER: Of course, Fiona jumps in.

Ridley Pearson also took us up the chairlift to the top of Bald Mountain. Pearson showed us scars where avalanches roll down the mountain in winter, often catching deer and elk. Their carcasses show up in the spring.

Mr. PEARSON: As a crime writer, I couldn't help but see a human body taking that same fall. And 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 along the side of the road.

WERTHEIMER: Pearson likes the view from the top of Bald Mountain. One reason: From 9,000 feet, Sun Valley is a tiny island of wealth, but it's surrounded by millions of acres of wild land, dark forests, faraway glaciers. All play dangerous parts in his plots.

But the centerpiece is the Sun Valley Lodge, built in the '30s by the then-railroad man Averell Harriman.

Mr. PEARSON: This hallway is duplicated throughout the hotel. But whats just terrific about it is you can go, picture by picture, through the history of the Sun Valley area.

WERTHEIMER: There are pictures of an impossibly handsome, young Harriman skiing with Gary Cooper and other movie stars who helped to make the Sun Valley Lodge famous.

Mr. PEARSON: It houses all these people that do have that money. They can be good people and they can be bad people, and so it gives me a place to pull all my people together. So 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 on them.

WERTHEIMER: Pearson considers himself part of the Sun Valley proletariat. He says he knows very nice, wealthy people in the valley, but he doesn't write about them. It's more fun to write about the others.

Mr. PEARSON: There are people who want to fly their helicopter into their house. That doesn't sit real well with people who've lived here 20 years. There are people who want their Lear jet to be able to land at 3 in the morning, and that doesnt sit well with people. So there's - there are conflicts that have arisen out of this culture clash.

WERTHEIMER: Lots of clashing goes on in Pearson's Sun Valley - masters of the universe versus mountain ranges, haves and have-nots, old timers and outlanders. It all works for Ridley Pearson, and he thinks it will keep working.

Mr. PEARSON: Fiction is - it spins around conflict, and I look for conflict here. And if I look hard, I can find it. And I like the idea of an economic divide as a constant in these novels.

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. So I mean, you could push each of these off a cliff every time and start the engine all over, but I like it when the character's growing, the town is growing, the conflict is growing - and some of that is passed on, book to book.

WERTHEIMER: The most recent book in Ridley Pearson's Sun Valley series is just out. It's called "In Harm's Way."

Linda Wertheimer, NPR News.

INSKEEP: And you can read from Ridley Pearson's newest novel on our Web site,

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Im Steve Inskeep.


And Im Renee Montagne.

(Soundbite of song, "It Happened in Sun Valley")

Unidentified People: (Singing) It's a thrill, such a thrill on hill, it's a thrill that I can't forget. It happened in Sun Valley not so very long ago...

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