Placitas author Ron Franscell heard something from the late author Larry McMurtry while interviewing him for a story in the Denver Post.
It still resonates with him, something the two authors have in common: They each have 26 letters to work with.
Franscell, 66, has another book delivered – putting those 26 letters to good use — and a plot for another buzzing around in his cranium.
“Deaf Row” is his first novel in a long time, and it almost came out of desperation after 18 true crime books. This time, he didn’t have to paraphrase any conversations based on someone’s memory – he’d get to build all the dialog, although he misses the pursuit of true crime.
“Deaf Row” will be released by Berkley/Penguin-Random House in March.
It’s a great book to read and was a fun book for Franscell to write, with the pandemic in his rear-view mirror.
“My research is so robust – I go to the scenes of the crime, talk to people, (but) … COVID stopped all of that,” he said. “I just locked myself in my office with 30 years of journalism and crime experience.”
And that turned into “Deaf Row.”
It’s an enjoyable read, with an interesting plot enhanced by the way Franscell writes.
“Every small town has its diner, where old guys gather around to fix what’s wrong with the world, poke fun at each other and relive the glory days,” Franscell said, and early in the book, we learn this group, of men in their 70s and 80s and calling themselves “Deaf Row,” gathers on a regular basis to commiserate about “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.”
Set in Midnight, Colorado, a town so small that all it had was “four saloons and a brew pub, a pizza place, a part-time Chamber of Commerce, a nursing home, a bank, and Tommyknockers Diner.” (No, not even a Starbucks.)
“Everybody knows guys like that; everybody sees guys like that,” Franscell, who could fit in with Deaf Row geezers, said. “The crime is ghastly, but there’s a lot of old-guy humor.”
The protagonist is a retired Denver homicide detective – a “reclusive, crusty old fart who wants to disappear … (and) retired to their small town but doesn’t want to have anything to do with anybody.”
Woodrow “Mountain” Bell is pestered on a daily basis in Midnight, Colorado: “stiff knees … the hard mornings … the shrinking social circle … caring less and less about more and more … not remembering if it was the first time or the last time … getting up twice a night to pee a thimbleful … the AARP junk mail … the fear you can’t finish the Sunday crosswords because you must have Alzheimer’s … the daughter who never calls … the mystery of why you ever voted for Democrats … already knowing which suit you’ll be buried in … and being invisible to the rest of the world.”
Sure, that sounds like a typical old-timer, doesn’t it? But one still sharp enough to solve the 1969 murder case – with no witnesses, no suspects, no arrests — with a little help from his friends.
Check out Father Bert Clancy, a regular in Deaf Row, and this blessing: “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.”
Father Bert is Bell’s best friend, and he’s the one who brings him a cold case.
Although Bell “wants to be left alone; some part of him can’t,” Franscell said. “but this is what he does. The problem is, he’s retired and doesn’t have support of local cops, technology, forensics – he doesn’t have any of that cool stuff.”
Bell realizes well before solving the case, after all his years in law enforcement “all I have to show for it are some nightmares, sore knees, and a bad attitude.”
Thankfully, those Deaf Row fellows “bit by bit … all contribute some kind of solution.”
Their best days are behind them, and they know that
Franscell terms “Deaf Row” as “about men growing old. It was fun to write.”
He said it didn’t take long to write it because “it had been in my head much longer than it took to write.”
And – spoiler alert – Bell solves the old murder mystery and survives a deadly confrontation with the girl’s killer; the real enjoyment for the reader takes place throughout the tale.
Meet Ron Franscell
Growing up in Casper, Wyoming, Franscell seemingly always loved to read – and above his grade level.
How many 7-year-olds have read Jack London’s “Call of the Wild” and books by Ernest Hemingway?
Franscell would be one of them, always enjoying the adventures he could have turning pages: “I was just a reader.”
One day, staying home because he was sick, he wrote a short story to occupy his time. It was about Tarzan coming upon a plane wreck in the jungle.
He didn’t realize it at the time, but it was the germination of what would be a career a few decades later, and it began when he and a friend started the school newspaper at their junior high school in Casper – and that newspaper is still churned out there, more than five decades later.
After a stint at the U.S. Naval Academy and getting a degree in journalism at the University of Wyoming, “I went into journalism as a professional.”
Indeed. Franscell, 66, spent time at the New Mexican in Santa Fe as metro editor (1982-86) and then years at the Denver Post, and as a senior writer there, was dispatched by the Post to cover the Middle East during the War on Terror. In 2004, he found himself covering devastating Hurricane Rita.
During his days in the Mile-High City, he wrote his first book, “Angel Fire,” – and, yes, the title and the book came from a visit to that iconic spot in New Mexico.
Franscell had found his true calling, although a co-worker advised him some of his early writings seemed more like a newspaper story – “Angel Fire” was a USA Today best-selling literary novel and listed by the San Francisco Chronicle to be among the 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century West.”
Franscell has been published in the country’s biggest newspapers, from coast to coast; he has been a guest on CNN, Fox News and the Today Show; and he has appeared on crime documentaries on the History Channel, Reelz, A&E and others.
Franscell and his wife Mary, a former AP English teacher in Albuquerque Public Schools, moved to Placitas in 2020 from San Antonio, Texas.
It’s too early for wide-spread acclaim for “Deaf Row,” but among its advance praise comes this from New Mexico’s Anne Hillerman: “(Deaf Row) tells a darkly engrossing story with a masterful, easy-flowing prose and a clever infusion of humor.”
Basically, Franscell says, “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 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.”
Franscell said he won’t write about topics that might be hot at the moment, or take aim at women, who buy 75% of books sold.
“I have always done what I want to do and won’t write to the market or a particular demographic,” he said, because, “I have to live with the book.”
He’s already working on his next fictional murder mystery, about a murder case that took place in Placitas, “a fascinating case,” but he’s moving it into Colorado.
“I’ll do my regular crime research, but have more fun doing it.”
Meet Ron Franscell
Saturday, March 11: Placitas Community Library, 453 NM 165; 2-4 p.m.
Sunday, March 12: Books on the Bosque, 6261 Riverside Plaza Lane NW, Suite A-2, Albuquerque; 2-4 p.m.