Deaf Row by Ron Franscell Genre: Mystery, Thriller, Crime Fiction
Retired from a big-city homicide beat to a small Colorado mountain town, ex-detective Woodrow "Mountain" Bell yearns only to fade away. He's failed in so many ways as a father, a husband, friend, and cop that it might be too late for a meaningful life. When he stumbles across a long-forgotten, unsolved child murder, his first impulse is to let it lie ... but he can't. He's drawn into the macabre mystery when he realizes the killer might still be near. Without help from ambivalent local cops, Bell must overcome the obstacles of time, age, and a lack of police resources by calling upon the unique skills of the end-of-the-road codgers he meets for coffee every morning—a club of old guys who call themselves Deaf Row. Soon, this mottled crew finds itself on a collision course with a serial butcher.
|DEAF ROW is more than a tense mystery novel, more than an unnerving psychological thriller drawn from Ron Franscell's career as a bestselling true-crime writer and journalist. It is also a novel of men pushing back against time and death, trying not to disappear entirely. DEAF ROW is a moving, occasionally humorous, portrait of flawed people caught in a web of pain and regret. And although you might think you know where this ghastly case is headed, the climax will blindside you.
A sign in the window read, “Tommyknockers Diner … Wireless Since 1899.”
As usual, Bell arrived late on that chilly Monday morning, a freckle past seven. He’d stayed awake late, haunted by Luther Nelson and the unsettling scene at the Old Miners Home. Now, he craved steak and eggs—and answers.
“You’re late, Woodrow,” said Cotton Minahan, the old fire chief. “Day’s damn near done. We’re all morning people here.”
Bell growled as he sloughed off his heavy leather coat and draped it over his usual chair beside Father Bert.
“Yeah, well, I hate morning people,” Bell grumbled. “And mornings. And people.”
The morning began, as it did any day Father Bert was there, with a blessing. Frankly, it always pushed the limits of priestly propriety. Most Catholics believe a prayer is a direct and intimate conversation with God, and the person praying—particularly if he’s a priest—must show the appropriate respect for the Almighty. Humor is taboo. But Father Bert Clancy, who had a history of nonconformity that the Archbishop privately might have called “blurry blasphemy,” tended to include his secular friends and their foibles in his conversations. The Pope wouldn’t approve, but the Pope didn’t live in Midnight.
So, the old priest crossed himself and bowed his head:
“God, please grant us the senility to forget the people who never liked us, the good fortune to run into the ones who did, and the eyesight to tell the difference. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.”
Deaf Row’s non-Catholics waved their fingers wildly across their chests like spastics. Some of the guys had been there since Fancy O’Neil, the waitress, put the first pot of coffee on at six a.m. Hell, they competed fiercely to be the first one at the door when it was unlocked. To a bunch of old guys who no longer noticed they were no longer noticed, being first at anything was a monumental triumph. Old men settle for small victories.
They called themselves Deaf Row. They were an irregular crew of old men who held fast to the little-boy tradition of naming their club, which, in this case, was just a small-town coffee klatsch.
On any given morning (except Sunday) seven or eight old guys gathered at a table in Tommyknockers’ front window to fabulate, debate and cuss about all the things that occupy old men: death, politics, colonoscopies, guns, women, cars, sex, loss, the senselessness of designer coffee, mortality, how time moves more quickly now, Viagra, missed opportunities in life, prostates, the diverse flavors of Metamucil, and fishing. Or something really deep and important, such as the relative stamina of car batteries, which might be a metaphor for what keeps old men alive when they don’t really want to talk about what keeps old men alive.
These were the kind of guys who never once wore cufflinks. Most struggled with the pervasive notion that nobody in a small town ever did much worth doing. Their little lives in their little town left little mark.
So when Bell arrived, the regular crew, minus Doc William Frederick Ely, was there. “Bones”—as everyone called him—was a retired GP who’d doctored Midnight for more than fifty years and bragged about circumcising every mayor since 1979. The table was already steaming through its regular fourth pot and arguing its regular nonsense. Today, that happened to be an argument over the fragility of mountains.
“Them are real mountains,” said Minahan, who “retired” shortly after he was ticketed for drunk fire-truck racing. He pointed at an Alaska 1998 calendar that had never been taken down from Tommyknockers’ cluttered wall for more than twenty years. But when he wasn’t being a smartass, he was a dumbass.
“They look all sharp and wild,” Minahan insisted. “Not like these pussy mountains in Colorado. People have wore ’em down.”
Dan Coogan snorted. He was the retired editor of the town’s weekly newspaper, the semi-conscious Midnight Sun, where he still wrote a local history column every week. He also had only one vocal cord and sounded a lot like Andy Devine when he talked.
“People don’t wear down mountains!”
The obstinate Cotton Minahan dug in.
“Well, in the old days they did!”
“Minahan, you’re the most unnecessary genius in the world,” Coogan squeaked back. “You’re the Einstein of total unnecessariness. It’s high time the world celebrated you.”
A veteran journalist, Ron Franscell is the New York Times bestselling author of 18 books, including international bestsellers “The Darkest Night” and Edgar-nominated true crime “Morgue: A Life in Death.” His newest, “ShadowMan: An Elusive Psycho Killer and the
Birth of FBI Profiling,” was released in March by Berkley/Penguin-Random House.
His atmospheric and muscular writing—hailed by Ann Rule, Vincent Bugliosi, William Least-Heat Moon, and others—has established him as one of the most provocative American voices in narrative nonfiction.
Ron’s first book, “Angel Fire,” was a USA Today bestselling literary novel listed by the San Francisco Chronicle among the 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century West. His later success grew from blending techniques of fiction-writing with his daily journalism. The result was dramatic, detailed, and utterly true storytelling.
Ron has established himself as a plucky reporter, too. As a senior writer at the Denver Post, he covered the evolution of the American West but shortly after 9/11, he was dispatched by the Post to cover the Middle East during the first months of the War on Terror. In 2004, he covered devastating Hurricane Rita from inside the storm.
His book reviews and essays have been widely published in many of America’s biggest and best newspapers, such as the Washington Post, Chicago Sun-Times, San Francisco Chronicle, San Jose Mercury-News, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel and others. He has been a guest on CNN, Fox News, NPR, the Today Show, ABC News, and he appears regularly on crime documentaries at Investigation Discovery, Oxygen, History Channel, Reelz, and A&E.
How did you become an author?
I’m a lifelong journalist. A friend and I started our junior high school newspaper when I was 12 and it seems like I’ve always been writing. I wrote my first novel “Angel Fire” while I was a daily newspaper editor, and my first true crime “The Darkest Night” after I returned from a reporting assignment in the Middle East after 9/11. It all springs from being a reader at a very early age. Eventually I began to wonder how somebody could move me to cry, laugh, or be afraid using little inky squiggles on a page. I wanted to be able to do that kind of magic.
Tell us something really interesting that’s happened to you!
Days after Sept. 11, 2001, I was dispatched by the Denver Post—where I was a senior writer—to the Middle East to cover the unfolding War on Terror. During that time, a slow epiphany took shape: That in that imperceptible moment between life and death is where we find our most necessary stories. A mystifying thing—a sort of ghost in the machine—happened on my long flight home, and I came home intently focused on writing “The Darkest Night,” about a horrifying 1973 Wyoming crime that changed my hometown overnight. It became a popular bestseller and the arc of my book-writing changed.
What is something unique/quirky about you?
I make wine. I live in the high desert of northern New Mexico, the last place you might expect to find a vineyard. But my wife and I tend our small vineyard—no small undertaking in the desert. It’s a relatively new amusement for us but winemaking has much in common with writing: It requires patience, things get messy, and eventually it must be shared to mean anything.
You’ve now written 19 books. Your first was a literary fiction, then a couple mysteries, then mostly true crime (except for one road-trip memoir). Why haven’t you stuck to one genre?
And journalism, screenplays, and a little poetry, too. I have been fascinated by all the forms our stories can take ever since I read how F. Scott Fitzgerald had tried to capture the rhythms of jazz in his writing. Part of me feels that every story has a perfect form and as storytellers, we should try to find it. That’s not a knock on those who only write fiction or non-fiction (or songs, poems, news reports, etc.) I’m just fascinated by all the ways we can tell a tale, and a little knowledge about all story forms helps every writer.
It’s perilous. Every genre has its own conventions and you should know all the rules before you can effectively break them. Otherwise, you’re just an arrogant idiot. So you must invest in re-educating yourself every time you switch. Plus, it impacts your brand and income as a writer if you build a fan base with one kind of story, then move on to another kind of story. And that’s why there’s a long-standing debate among writers about whether one should write for the market or write whatever stories turn one on.
The insufferable know-it-alls in publishing will smugly advise would-be novelists to write what’s in their hearts, but publishing is a risk-averse business and they’re most interested in what has already succeeded for somebody else. Those same experts will sternly warn that there’s very little chance of publishing anything anyway ... so it seems to me a writer should do what he wants to do and hope his agent is versatile and devoted. If I fail at publishing, at least I fail telling stories I want to tell. Publishing’s suits simply don’t understand true storytellers. I’ve been advised to select a genre and do nothing else. I won’t. I dreamed the basic plot for ‘The Deadline,’ for Pete’s sake. It was a mystery. What if I only wrote romances or seagoing adventures?
What intrigues us about crime stories?
The criminal mind has always fascinated us as humans. When an especially deviant crime happens, our rational minds want to put things back in order, to make sense out of something senseless. Since the beginning of mankind, we have wanted to understand threats, to feel safe, to avoid unnecessary death.
So, I don’t think our fascination has changed—our media has. We now have cable, movies, the Internet, audio books, 24/7 news, streaming channels, podcasts, social media ... all feeding our primitive human desire to see our monsters coming.
It’s been a theme of my crime-writing—whether fiction or nonfiction—that the monsters look like us. We often think our monsters are easy to spot because they look like flying monkeys, boogeymen, or Manson. Now we know they live next door, have families, coach Little League, take vacations. They’re indiscernible from anybody else ... and that scares the hell out of us.
You’ve written about serial killers but they sometimes feel like supporting characters in real stories about victims, survivors, and cops. Why?
Serial killers are freaks and we love freak shows. They occasionally creep into our nightmares, our mythology … our homes … and steal away something. Security. Trust. Life.
But I’m not especially fascinated by serial killers in fact or fiction, except as the catalysts that set greater human stories in motion. I’m far more interested in the people who are splashed by this horror and those who must deal with it. I’m intrigued by ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. The greater the evil, the greater the hero.
What inspired you to write DEAF ROW?
One day, an elderly friend told me about his old buddies who got together most mornings at a local diner where they fix what’s wrong with the world, tell tall tales, poke fun of each other, and remember their glory days. He told me they call themselves “Deaf Row”—and in the blink of an eye, a story sprang full-blown in my mind about those codgers, about growing old, and the importance of living all the way to the end.
Did you sit down right then and write it?
No. I was writing one of my true-crime stories at the time, and I was already working on the next true crime, so I tucked it away for some other day.
Tell us about your characters in DEAF ROW.
One of them is a retired Denver homicide detective named Woodrow Bell, whose friends call him “Mountain”—as in “Mountain Bell.”
Bell is a crusty, cynical, reclusive old fart who really just wants to fade away. When his closest friend, a retired priest with an unorthodox past, brings him a long-forgotten cold case, Bell’s natural reaction is merely to growl, but the more he learns, the more he can’t look away. Problem is, he’s just a retired cop, and he has none of the high-tech forensic tools that he once had in the big-city, and he isn’t taken seriously by local cops. All he has is Deaf Row, a motley crew of old guys who happen to have some skills that sometimes even they don’t realize. Together, they embark on an investigation that quickly proves to be bigger and badder than anybody imagined.
In the end, DEAF ROW is a classical mystery but it also dives into the lives of old people in overlooked places whose best days are behind them, whom we see every day but no longer actually notice.
Any engaging female characters among these guys on Deaf Row?
Oh, yes. No credible story about men can ignore women. They run throughout the whole book. One is Woodrow Bell’s “girlfriend” Charlie. At fiftysomething, she’s a couple decades younger than Bell. She’s pretty (when she allows herself to be pretty), smart, never married, has a tough exterior (she drives a garbage truck even though she runs the company she inherited from her father). She’s writing a novel, but won’t show it to Bell. She has Bell’s same commitment anxiety, but is devoted to him. They spar lovingly (and constantly), but she’s the only other person beside his priest friend that Bell “lets in.” They have an occasionally sexual relationship, but that’s not why they’re together. In the way the priest-friend sits on one shoulder, Charlie sits on Bell’s other, a more level-headed approach to problems. Through her, we see some of the softer stuff Bell tries to hide from the world.
And that’s true of DEAF ROW’s other female characters, too. They’re strong, they stopped taking shit a long time ago, and they give the guys purpose.
DEAF ROW is not just a crime story. It’s about men growing old, too.
It’s been either the blessing or the curse of my book-writing career: I just don’t want to do it like everybody else is doing it. I blended journalism and fiction-technique in my true crime, and in DEAF ROW, I wanted to blend commercial crime fiction with a kind of literary exploration of men who have outlived their best days and who are now growing invisible to the rest of the world.
So, yeah, DEAF ROW is an up-market fiction that should appeal to both suspense fans and to fans of more literary storytelling.
What made you switch from true crime to crime fiction?
My true crimes are the product of old-school research and investigation. I’m an old-fashioned reporter who believes in first-hand, up-close sensory experiences that tell me everything I want to tell a reader. I write narrative nonfiction, in which I tell utterly true stories with some tools from a novelist’s toolbox—foreshadowing, character development, setting details, etc.—a reading experience that relies heavily on the tiniest details of what I can see, hear, taste, smell, and feel. I can only get that from having my boots on the ground in the places where it happened, talking to people who might have lived it. That richness has set my true-crime apart from more formulaic books.
Then along comes Covid. Suddenly, in a spasm of global lockdown, I can’t book a hotel room, dine out in a restaurant, find a motel room, enter courthouse or libraries ... and I certainly can’t talk face-to-face with the few hundred people I typically interview for my kind of richly reported true-crime book.
So in early 2020 I locked myself in my office alone with 40 years of experience, stories, and ghosts of telling true crime stories, and I breathed life into those old farts of Deaf Row.
Which is harder: True crime or crime fiction?
In my career, I’ve written a literary novel, a few mysteries, a road-trip memoir, and more than a dozen true-crime books. I’ve also written maybe a thousand newspaper articles, three screenplays, countless blogs, and a couple poems. What I’ve learned is that each genre has its own unique conventions. Think of it this way: A news anchorwoman, a songwriter, a poet, and a film director are all storytellers. They might all have a special affection for language, but what about being an anchorwoman naturally makes her a poet? What about being a filmmaker makes him a natural songwriter? Really, nothing.
So, it is with writing true crime and crime fiction. The leap might not seem as great between two thematically related literary pursuits, but the realms of nonfiction and fiction are separate universes.
In some ways, the true-crime writer has an easier job. He needn’t imagine a plot, characters, setting, a message, or anything else except maybe the structure of his story. But on the other hand, the mystery writer isn’t constrained by what ACTUALLY happened and can solve plot predicaments by simply imagining a solution.
Another interesting difference comes when you tell the reader up front “This is a true story” or “I made this up.” Fiction readers give an author a wide berth; they suspend their disbelief and allow the storyteller some leeway between what is likely and what is possible. The nonfiction writer tells you on the front cover “This is a true story” so readers don’t suspend their disbelief, they don’t give permission to be elegantly gaslighted, and they are quick to declare the author to be a lying charlatan and throw the book across the room. It’s why we can love a movie about blue people in a different universe, but be angry with a TV weatherman.
So even though I’ve written both true crime and crime fiction, I can’t declare one easier than the other. To me, they’re as different as writing a history book or a song. They’re both hard.
If a beginning writer asked me which genre she should pick, I’d say it doesn’t matter. I advise that she become an ardent student of the form, to learn everything she can about how it’s done, then the rest is easy. You just sit down at your word processor and let the blood ooze from your forehead.
Do your characters talk to you?
I’ve heard a lot of writers say they carry on conversations with their characters. Somebody studied this recently: 63% of authors said they heard their characters speak while writing, and 61% swore their characters were capable of acting independently and some said they actually carried on dialogue with these imaginary beings. When I hear a fellow writer say stuff like that, I usually take a subtle step backward. Hearing voices in your head is a symptom of schizophrenia and I just don’t want to take any chances.
BUT … I must think and behave on my characters’ behalf. Think about it this way: We all imagine hearing the voices of other people when we think about how an argument might have gone differently, or how someone we know is likely to respond to the news we’re about to give them. That’s just our normal thought process.
My imaginary characters live the life I give them and no more. I am sometimes surprised by what my subconscious produces, but I’m not possessed or surrounded or dependent on my characters. I don’t feel their physical presence or smell them or touch them or hear them. There’s no doubt in my mind who’s in charge.
Any advice for young or beginning writers?
Beware of anyone who offers magic beans. There are no magic beans. Anybody who says he knows the secret that will make you a bestselling author is probably trying to sell you a book. The tricks are no tricks at all: Practice. Stay organized. Keep files. Practice some more. Study people. Take clear notes. Write down every pertinent thought. Practice more. Don’t get overwhelmed. You’ll know when you know enough. Once you have all the ingredients, you’ll know it’s time to start. And practice.
What’s your next book?
I haven’t retired from true crime but my next manuscript is a sequel to DEAF ROW. In fact, it’s a fiction closely based on a real-life crime. I’ve done a lot of research into the facts of that case, which is one of the funner parts of my true-crime writing. But I’ve also enjoyed getting to know Woodrow Bell and the boys of Deaf Row a lot better. So, I’ve been able to blend some of the best of both the real and imaginary worlds. It’s its own kind of challenge.
Do you see writing as a potential career?
LOL. I’m still practicing.
FUN FACTS/DID YOU KNOW?
Among the newsmakers Ron has interviewed as a journalist are President Ronald Reagan, killer Charles Manson, and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Larry McMurtry.
After 9/11, Ron covered the opening months of the War on Terror as a Middle East correspondent for the Denver Post
Ron’s true crime ‘Morgue: A Life in Death,’ co-authored with renowned medical examiner Dr. Vincent DiMaio, was a finalist for the 2017 Edgar Award.
Ron’s first book, a literary novel titled ‘Angel Fire,’ was listed by the San Francisco Chronicle among the 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century West.
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