Arts July 29, 2008

Killer Homecoming

Sun Valley is the Locale of Authors' New Thriller

  As the turboprop makes its descent over the Valley and before it glides onto the landing at Friedman Airport, I take in the high-desert-to-alpine scenery below, the likes of which this Jersey-girl-turned-Californian has never seen before, and only one thing comes to mind: Ridley Pearson has come home to kill.

The truth is, Pearson, who has lived in the Valley at least part of the year for the past 27 years, has been plotting murder and mayhem here that whole time. Pearson first came to the Valley to live and work on his writing in 1980; over the years he has published more than 20 crime novels, a trilogy prequel of novels about Peter Pan with best friend Dave Barry, and several children’s books on his own. In his new series, however, Pearson uses the real people and places of the Valley as the backdrop and some of the characters in his fiction.

I show the woman sitting across the plane’s aisle my dog-eared copy of Killer Weekend, the first in Pearson’s new series released last summer, and tell her I am making my first trip to Sun Valley to profile Pearson.

“Be careful,” the attractive woman of about 50 with blonde hair and delicately made-up features tells me. “This place has a way of sucking people in.” She doesn’t offer her name and I don’t ask, but she explains that she first came here from Seattle in the ’90s to ski and eventually bought a condo in Ketchum. She only comes in on winter weekends.

I recognize the small airport from the description in one of the first chapters of Killer Weekend: “bland—like a one-story brown shoebox—when compared with its extraordinary backdrop.” I wonder just how much the rest of the Valley will seem familiar to me having recently read about it.

The protagonist in the book, Sheriff Walt Fleming, is modeled after Walt Femling, who has been Blaine County Sheriff for more than 20 years. Femling and Pearson have known each other for just as long, and Femling willingly gave Pearson permission to model the sheriff in his fictional Sun Valley after the real one. Sheriff Fleming has his hands full in Killer Weekend. Local billionaire Patrick Cutter has brought together some of the world’s top players in banking, entertainment and politics for his Cutter Communications Conference, “C3,” and on the eve of the over-the-top luxurious event (where both Sumner Redstone and Bill Gates are among the attendees) he doesn’t want the sheriff’s caution about evidence indicating the presence of an assassin among them getting in the way of his three-day extravaganza. To make matters worse, Fleming’s estranged father Jerry, a former special forces agent with the FBI, is in on the security detail around Attorney General Liz Shaler, the expected target of the assassin, who is set to announce her candidacy for president during her Sunday morning keynote.

All the action in the book happens in Pearson’s beloved Valley and when the author picks me up at a hotel in Hailey the next morning for a tour, he clearly can’t wait to show off the real people and places in his book. His long-time assistant Nancy Litzinger, a native of the Valley who lives in Boise, gets behind the wheel of a mid-size sedan and Pearson insists I sit in front to get the best view. >>>




Pearson leans over from the back seat and describes how the mountains change every five minutes as we drive up 75 toward Ketchum. “City people come and say, ‘what boring mountains,’” says Pearson. “You can see on the south side there are no evergreens, and look up just a couple of miles and there they are because the snow depth is enough to water the seeds through the year and they grow.”

Pearson talks about how his brother recruited him to come out and play in his country-rock band with him in 1980. He lived in his parents’ log home and wrote. Eventually, he got his own place and his parents, Bob and Betsy, moved here year-round from Connecticut in the 1990s. Sucked in. Ridley’s quick to say that he settled in long before “the arrival of attitude,” as he describes in Killer Weekend, the population boom after Demi Moore and Bruce Willis were featured in People vacationing in the Valley. “That was right after the L.A. riots, and the fires, and there was this huge hit of white flight between 1988 and 1994,” says Pearson. “That changed the place forever.”

The various levels of social strata and how people within them interact (or don’t) provide Pearson with plenty of sources for dramatic tension or even comedy to occur between the long-time locals, the C3 jet set, and the Hollywood crowd. Of course, there’s always the danger someone will take offense at how the real and imaginary worlds collide on the pages of Pearson’s books, but he doesn’t seem too worried about it.

The first stop on today’s tour: the house of the five barns. In real life it is the home of Dan and Martine Drackett, who had it constructed from five barns disassembled in New Hampshire and Vermont, then shipped out here, where a crew of skilled timber framers from the East Coast reassembled every inch of them to create one amazing house. Pearson used the exterior of the house as a model for the lavish home of Patrick Cutter, where he sets a party scene in Killer Weekend. How do the owners feel about their home being used like this?

“I just told them five minutes ago, so we’ll see,” says Pearson as we make our way up the drive to a rather impressive series of rustic, yet elegant structures. “I tell people when I use their names in books, but I rarely get persmission to use a setting.”

“They’re friends of yours?” I ask.

“Everybody’s a friend; it’s just too small a Valley,” says Pearson. “Well, maybe not everybody anymore, but anybody who was here between ’80 and ’94, we all know each other.” He tells me that the Dracketts are big supporters of the symphony.

Up until then, Pearson had not seen the inside of the Drackett home. The interior of Patrick Cutter’s home in the novel is the author’s creation.

Dan Drackett is thrilled to see Pearson and his tiny entourage and he happily shows us around. In one of the barns a giant hay hook hovering above a staircase between two bedrooms catches Pearson’s eye.

“That would be a great place to find a body,” he says.

All day, Pearson seems to be spotting things to use in future novels. As we drive toward Baldy, I ask if we are on the same road.

“There’s only one road,” Pearson and Litzinger inform their guest in unison. Pearson even sees potential in that detail. “All I have to do is blow a bridge and everybody’s stuck: law enforcement, medical,” he says. >>>



The tour continues. “That’s Galena Pass right there,” says Pearson. “It’s a big part of the second book.” He pauses to take a deep breath. “Go up there and look down onto the headwaters of the Salmon River, it’s just one of the best views in America,” he says. “You look out on the Sawtooth Mountains, and they are just the most craggy, gorgeous run of mountains.”

“Those are not Sawtooth?” I ask.

“Those are still the Smokies. The Pioneers are over here to the right,” Pearson continues. “In the [first] book there was a 60-page chase scene in the Pioneers that we took out.”

My internal writer thinks that somehow both a chase in the Pioneers and the Dracketts’ hay hook will find their way into a Pearson novel before he is done with this series. As we drive past the lodge near River Run, Pearson explains how, “Wally, whom you’ll meet, came out here with Earl Holding’s money and they put snowmaking machines all over the mountain and built these lodges.” The casual way he refers to Holding, the owner of Sun Valley Company, and Wally Huffman, its general manager, as he tells me the history of the resort, makes me think that that is part of the pull of Sun Valley. Somehow the shorthand used by the locals invites newcomers in, instead of alienating them.

“Oh, good, we got the green. This is like a five-minute light,” says Pearson. Sheriff Fleming runs this same light at 75 and Sun Valley Road in Killer Weekend as he races to the airport in an effort to intercept the suspected assassin who is flying in from Salt Lake City.

The next stop on our tour is The Community Library, a place of special significance to Pearson. He checked out more than 80 books while working on his first novel, Never Look Back. “I didn’t have any money to travel, and I was writing about chemical warfare and Canada,” he says as we walk into the library. He lowers his voice and adds, “I knew where the stop signs are in Montreal. It was so cool because I could get everything through the library.”

A quick walk around the corner plants us in front of the home Pearson “borrowed” and imagined for Liz Shaler’s ranch house. “It’s just some funky thing that her parents bought back in the ’50s that she inherited,” says Pearson. “Liz could live in a mansion, but she doesn’t and I think that informs the reader of who she is.”
Killer Weekend opens with a scene eight years before the C3 conference, when Patrolman Walt Fleming saved Liz from an attacker in that house, just an ordinary ranch around the corner from the library.

As a writer, Pearson is known for his masterful portrayals of both the history of a place and the history between characters in his books. The Sun Valley Inn and Lodge are loaded with history for Pearson to wield at his writerly whim. Some of it is personal.

“One of my early jobs, I was a cleaner in the hospital,” says Pearson as we walk past a building near the inn which once housed the Moritz Community Hospital, since replaced by St. Luke’s Wood River Medical Center. The fictional hospital plays a crucial role near the end of Killer Weekend. “It was a fabulous job because it got me inside all of that,” he goes on, sounding like a writer appreciating the gathering of gory details for later use. “You don’t forget picking up a person’s knee from the floor.”

After a brisk walk through the mall, we are over in Wally Huffman’s office where he gets up from his desk set under an original movie poster for Sun Valley Serenade.

“So, are you okay with what I did with you in the book?” asks Pearson.

Huffman’s fine with it, although he worries the Allen & Co. people will think C3 is a little too close to its annual extravagant meeting of movie moguls, Wall Street types, politicians and celebrities. But, he continues, “It’s fantasy, and I’ve always said that the only bad publicity is your obituary.”

That line gives us all a laugh. Pearson says he used several of the conferences held in the Valley throughout the year as his C3 model.

“Wally’s a good friend of Clint Eastwood; he sees the high end of the Valley,” says Pearson.

“I see it all,” says Huffman. “I know where all the skeletons are buried . . .”

Huffman has his own model to show off—the new music pavilion for the Sun Valley Symphony. I think about the Dracketts who support the symphony, Huffman who will oversee the pavilion construction, and the residents and guests of Sun Valley who will enjoy it, and I appreciate how those layers of society, overlapping as they do here, will give Pearson some good fodder for his fiction.

After a quick walk through the halls of fame in the lodge where black-and-white photographs from Hollywood’s first love affair with the Valley began in the 1930s, it’s off to Cristina’s for lunch with Walt Femling.

Even though his fictional alter ego is divorced and not on even slightly good terms with his father—which is the exact opposite, in both cases, in Femling’s life—he has no problem with Pearson taking liberties with his character. I imagine this is not the first lunch Pearson and Femling have had together at Cristina’s.

“We took Bridget to the Pio [The Pioneer Saloon] last night,” Pearson tells Femling. A tense scene with the fictional Walt and his father plays out beneath the barbed-wire displays at the Pio.

Feeling a bit like a local—or at least like someone given an insider’s welcome—I tell Femling what happened at dinner. While waiting for our food, a woman at the table next to ours asked Pearson if he wouldn’t mind meeting a couple of his biggest fans—her son and daughter. Pearson joked at the time that he swore he didn’t have that set up for my behalf. And then it turned out that the kids’ father worked for Femling.

“This is a small Valley,” I say.

Femling reminds me of a younger Martin Sheen, but maybe that’s because he seems to simply and modestly fit in his role of sheriff like Sheen did as the president on “The West Wing.” Even when he recounts his investigation of 16-year-old Sarah Johnson’s murder of her parents in 2003. He says he suspected her right away, but doesn’t sound cocky about it. All in a day’s work.

Femling tells Pearson he’s getting a new jail and Pearson says he knows how long his longtime friend has wanted that. So after lunch, Femling takes us for a walk-through of the old jail and you can almost hear Pearson’s writer gears clicking in his head.

I’m thinking that the next time I come to the Valley—look, I am already giving in to the pull of this place—Walt Femling might have his new jail, but Walt Fleming might still have the old one and a few problems on his hands that Pearson is dreaming up.

Pearson is just about done writing the second book and I ask if he gives us the first female president. “Liz is vice president in the cameo she gets in Killer View,” explains Pearson. “The second novel focuses on the disappearance of the local vet, the death of his brother, and the possible connection to the Idaho Nuclear Lab, less than 100 miles away.”

The Valley has its way of sucking people in, but then so does master storyteller Ridley Pearson.

This article appears in the Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.