Is there Sense in the Senseless?

Book review: The Spider and the Fly
by Claudia Rowe

A serial killer, Kendall Francois, was caught after a spontaneous confession to police. They’d let him escape closer scrutiny repeatedly despite plenty of complaints from potential victims. He’s imprisoned and a journalist going through a difficult, soul-searching time in her own life begins corresponding with him in an attempt to understand more about what makes him tick. That’s the premise here.

Journalist Claudia Rowe tells her own story too, sort of, halfway describing a troubled childhood amidst Upper West Side affluence but never quite getting out enough to make the reader understand its relevance.

Rowe spends a large portion of the book trying to convince someone, and I’m not sure who (the reader, her editors, people she connected with during her investigations?) but I lean towards thinking it’s her family and ex-boyfriend, why she’s doing this project. But I didn’t need convincing. If those people close to her did, something about that moral quandary could’ve been included. She has a nice literary flourish to her writing so I’m sure she could’ve done it in an artistic way to make a reader consider what she’s doing and why. But there’s entirely too much devoted to it. I don’t need to know more. How could anyone walk away from the chance to understand more? she asks rhetorically. I agree. If her family can’t understand that, too bad. Her readership certainly will get it. That’s why we’re reading.

Maybe she needed to write two separate books. Not that her own story and upbringing didn’t need to be a part of the greater story of Francois, but the connection she spent so much effort and so many words trying to establish still wasn’t there. They weren’t both outcasts, misfits, if that’s what she was going for – setting up this connection and underlining it over and over to justify why she feels compelled to correspond with him over a number of years in an attempt to tease out any sense of meaning regarding these crimes. Francois himself even tells her, “Stop trying to identify with me.”

Sometimes the book veers towards lending some dignity to the women whose lives were taken. But not each of them is examined, and the attention to some is greater than to others. As one example, Robert Kolker’s excellent Lost Girls tells the stories of women working as prostitutes who ended up victims of a still-unidentified killer, who they were and how and why they got to where they did, without inserting much about himself or his reasons for pursuing the project into the narrative. Those stories still haunt me. And I never questioned his motives. That’s just journalism; the person writing was curious and I’m curious if I’m reading it.

In a way, I’m hesitant even to criticize this so strongly, because it was obviously a massive emotional undertaking for Rowe and it’s clear she was going through something very difficult when she wrote it. She reminds us often, and touches on a stint at a writer’s retreat where it seems like some of it got fleshed out. And it reads that way, like something cathartic for her and potentially interesting for an audience beyond herself, but composed of too many disjointed parts to ever make much sense. It’s her memoir, it’s a true crime history without actually finishing its study of the victims or perpetrators, it’s psychological, it’s a study in morals and ethics. It’s all too much without any of its parts being enough.

She mentions how Francois blocked access to his family, but her attempts, at least those we see, seem lackluster. I kept forgetting he had siblings beyond the sister who lived at home at the time he was murdering and turning the attic into a disturbing makeshift graveyard. About the house, it was a nightmare of a hoarding case, with maggots raining from the ceiling thanks to the aforementioned graveyard – and this family just let it go? Rowe touches on that somewhat, that the immediate family was interviewed and agreed they should’ve investigated the horrific smells and source of the maggots, but didn’t. There has to be more to this, maybe from the police side or from the city. Instead it all remains inexplicable.

I felt exhausted and sad at the end. I didn’t have the impression there was any deeper meaning to Francois or his motives; some psychologists she meets with sum him up pretty succinctly and it fits. If she was trying to make it seem there was more, it didn’t come across. None of the personalities introduced were likable. Including Rowe herself, and like I said, I feel awful saying that, but it was only because she didn’t reveal enough about herself to generate understanding. She tried to cover so much that all of it ended up cold and insufficient, and it was jumbled up, skipping between topics constantly. One I haven’t even mentioned yet is the racial problem in Poughkeepsie and upstate New York’s Dutchess County, where Francois was raised and all this took place. The region plays a large role in his isolation from normal society, probably in his family’s strange behavior, and the racial tensions are clearly massive (Francois was African-American).  The topic gets lost in the shuffle, like every thread in the narrative.

The redeeming quality is that sometimes she’s a great writer, with an intelligent, literary tone. It’s not awful, I didn’t dread picking it up and reading. I just think it could’ve been a much better book, or ideally, two books – one on the crimes and those involved, racial tensions in Poughkeepsie/Dutchess County with something of why she found herself drawn to the case; and a second memoir about her, with more detail and examination of her childhood and why she’s made some of her choices. The intersection between the two here didn’t convince me.

The Spider and the Fly: A Reporter, a Serial Killer, and the Meaning of Murder
by Claudia Rowe
published January 24, 2017 by Dey Street Books

I received an advance copy from the publisher for review.

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