Like Minds, Dark Hearts

R. Franscell
Source: R. Franscell

Occasionally, we hear about matches made in hell: two people who separately kill someone. Serial killer Peter Kürten, for example, married a woman who’d killed a man who had jilted her, and Kürten went on to kill at least 13 people. It’s as if they had some special radar—mur-dar—to hone in on each other’s potential for murder, which I’ve written about here.

Gerald and Alice Uden had both been married several times before they said “for better or for worse” to each other. During the 1980s, they moved together from Wyoming to Missouri. They had kids and went to church. They mingled well with neighbors. That’s why locals were surprised in 2013 when police came looking for the Udens. Alice was 75 and Gerald 71. Both were suspects in homicides in their home state.

The police took them in separately, because each had to answer for his or her own situation. True crime writer Ron Franscell depicts this twisted tale in his latest book, Alice and Gerald: A Homicidal Love Story. He tells it like a novelist, taking you into their world with a great sense of setting and character. Despite the seeming simplicity of this story, it’s anything but. You get inside the various interrogations, the sometimes creepy investigations, and the constant frustrations as investigators try to sort through the couple’s many lies, deflections and manipulations.

The Udens did go to trial, separately. Gerald admitted he’d made mistakes, and given his love for Alice, a triple homicide seemed the only way to erase them and live peacefully with her. “I saw all of them as the wedge," he said of his victims. Franscell documents in gruesome detail how Gerald undertook this unthinkable chore.

Unlike Gerald, Alice didn’t cop to premeditation. She had a ready excuse. But the way she’d handled her victim postmortem gave the jury a different impression. The entire episode was rather bizarre. You’ll wonder how much of the truth she actually told.

It’s almost Shakespearean, and Franscell’s narrative style makes even the most grisly parts highly readable. Many passages reverberate with a rich sense of setting and character, expressed as if you’re right there in Wyoming: “It was one of Hudson’s oldest homes, built years before women could vote, but it hadn’t been kept up. Now dog-eared and dreary, it bore only traces of grand ambitions gone awry. Hell, a lot of hopes and houses caved in here, and, in time, the land always swallowed them back up.”

Here’s a compact rendition of why Gerald’s first marriage failed: “…a serious health crisis caused by birth control pills that put Barbara Ann in the hospital with life-threatening blood clots. After a painfully short recovery period in which she simply didn’t recover, the old-fashioned rube Gerald wanted his wife back on her feet, doing chores and servicing his needs. He demanded that she buck up, even though she’d nearly died only two weeks before. Barbara Ann got up, all right. She went straight from her bed to divorce court, and Gerald was roadkill.”

And when Gerald first sees Alice: “Hanging back on the bare ground behind her was a big-breasted, comely woman with long dark hair, dressed like a dollar-store buckle bunny in a Western pantsuit, cowboy boots, and dangling turquoise earrings. Not bad, Gerald thought.”

Readers can imagine this talent for richly compact description applied to Gerald going to a two-month-old body dump to transfer decomposing remains to a safer spot. Word choice, slang, attitude and voice blend together make this an opulent tale, despite focusing on a couple of losers. The style felt so authentic to time and place that I asked Franscell about his process.

“I lived it,” he told me. “I’m a Wyoming native who was about to graduate from high school at the moment Alice killed Ron Holtz, and from college when Gerald killed Virginia and the boys. In summers, I worked construction jobs and in the oilfields with these people. I know the landscape and the mindscape intimately. Wyoming is my heart-earth. In this book, I wanted to bring it to vivid life for readers who think it is a foreign country.”

He succeeded, but for more reasons than just knowing the place. I asked about his approach to craft.

“I’m an old-school journalist. I believe truly, madly, deeply in being there, so I stood in the places I describe: the exact spot where Virginia and her boys died, Claire’s laundry, and among the bones that still clutter the edge of a deep, dark mine. I smelled it, listened to it, and looked for that narrative dust that settles on everything. It’s that textual grit that makes it real. The rest is just years of practice and taking risks.”

He compared this tale to Macbeth. “I couldn’t have constructed a more perfect fictional parallel. I nearly leapt out of my seat while watching the video of Alice’s final interrogation and she began rubbing the back of her hand, as if to wipe off some invisible spot!”

If you appreciate carefully crafted writing, there’s metaphorical mastery here. When you get lines like “Gerald Uden’s family had only bumped against the stained glass windows of religion, like passionless Protestant moths,” you keep diving in for more. This is the best kind of true crime, ghastly yet verbally fine-tuned.

Law and Crime
Subtitle: 
Sometimes people with depraved secrets are drawn to each other.
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Shadow Boxing
Teaser Text: 
A true crime author offers twisted tale of remorseless lovers who evade the law—but only for so long.
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Reference: 

Franscell, Ron. Alice and Gerald: A homicidal love story. Amherst, NY: Prometheus.

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