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Sun Valley Sheriff Finds Murder On The Mountain

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
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AP Images
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.

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.

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
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NPR
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.

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.

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

"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.

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.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

As NPR's senior national correspondent, Linda Wertheimer travels the country and the globe for NPR News, bringing her unique insights and wealth of experience to bear on the day's top news stories.