The Spider and the Fly: Too much memoir, not enough murder

Did you enjoy reading I’ll Be Gone in the Dark? If so, I’ll tell you right now – this book is not the Michelle McNamara-level read that you seek. If you’re eager to dig into the mind of a killer and try to understand what separates them from the rest of humanity, this story won’t help you with that either. The Spider and the Fly: A Reporter, a Serial Killer, and the Meaning of Murder is many things, but it’s probably not what you’d expect.

While the description portrays the book as one reporter’s mission to understand what motivated an unlikely criminal to kill, the end result is something much more self-indulgent. Instead, author and New York reporter Claudia Rowe leads us through her sad, strange reflections on a rough patch in her life, trying to unpack why she so desperately sought out a pen pal relationship with a convicted serial killer.

Rowe’s subject is Poughkeepsie sex offender Kendall Francois, who confessed to murdering eight women over the course of two years. We don’t know very much about Francois or his victims, and because he was convicted without a trial there isn’t much public information about him or his crimes. Even his Ranker article simply rehashes the grisly details of how he stashed his victims’ bodies in the attic of his family home for two years. This haunting tidbit alone begs investigation: How can a whole family reside together in a home that reeks of decaying flesh? What’s the deal with the Francois family, and what was going on in that household?

The unbelievable way the Francois family endured and seemingly enabled Kendall’s murders is the most remarkable aspect of an otherwise familiar case, and Rowe vowed to uncover why. But Kendall Francois wasn’t interested in turning his tale into a case study, and despite Rowe’s pleading interview attempts he refuses to divulge much about his family. Instead, Rowe gets caught up in his correspondence power plays, and the most interesting questions about his murders go unanswered. Other than relaying conversations that indicate Francois might be deeply narcissistic and misogynistic, Rowe doesn’t shed much light on his character or even on his crimes. By the end of the book, we barely know more about Francois than we had already learned from that Ranker article.

photo via the Poughkeepsie Journal

So what do we learn in this story? A hell of a lot of about Rowe. Halfway through the book, it’s clear that she’s more interested in investigating her own childhood and mid-life crisis than uncovering what factors and impulses made mild-mannered Kendall Francois into a murderer.

It was hard not to compare this book to other first person, obsessed-with-the-killer accounts like I’ll Be Gone In the Dark and True Crime Addict. To be fair, true crime novels like these are a little bit gonzo in spirit, and plenty of authors insert themselves into their recreations of history. Like Michelle McNamara, Rowe shares stories about her formative relationship with her mother. Like James Renner, she describes the damaging family history that shaped her childhood and led her to this personal moment of reckoning. When she explains her early fixations with violence in history and entertainment, I winced in recognition. But where Renner and McNamara find common ground with the victims of their cases, Rowe tries so hard to identify with the killer that she projects all kinds of feelings and possible histories onto him, filling the void of his silence with her own assumptions.

Interestingly, for all her exploration of her own trauma, Rowe’s interpretations of Francois’ character and humanity are pretty weak. She makes a meek effort to describe all the ways he is outwardly charming yet awkward, conscientious yet oblivious, harmless yet clearly capable of brute violence. In other words, he displays the textbook contradictions of a narcissistic sociopath. Despite her self-described fascination with evil minds, Rowe seems strangely naive about abnormal psychology. Apparently she didn’t make time for a literature review during the decade she spent on this pen pal project.

Based on Rowe’s findings alone, I’m not convinced that Kendall Francois is really that unique from other serial killers, aside from his family’s bizarre denial of the bodies decaying in their house. The details that could possibly shed the most light onto his state of mind – his childhood, his parents’ relationship, any abuse or trauma he experienced in that decaying home – are the ones Rowe fails to entice from her extremely guarded subject. It’s not really her fault that Francois chose not to explain himself, but the lack of conclusion does leave the book feeling like a vain exercise in self-exploration, a bait and switch. It’s a little like Wild by Cheryl Strayed, except instead of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, this woman spent years holed up in Poughkeepsie, slowly ruining her own life while corresponding with a serial killer in Attica.

Maybe Rowe was clear about her intention for this book all along – it was spelled out right in the subtitle on the cover, and I didn’t give it much weight. I came for some serious forensic psychology, but I wasn’t expecting to spend so much time delving into the author’s mind under the premise of learning about her subject.

Have you read The Spider and the Fly? What did you think?