Writers are drawn to a crime scene like flies to rotting flesh, and so when a serial killer was caught in her town of Poughkeepsie, N.Y., local reporter Claudia Rowe was of course…happy. Rowe's multiyear pen-pal relationship with Kendall Francois, the murderer of eight women, is the subject of her new true-crime memoir, The Spider and the Fly (Dey Street Books, 288 pages, $26.99).
Kendall Francois was a notorious local john repeatedly reported for abusing women throughout the late '90s. But it wasn't until police took out a warrant to raid his family's home that they found a hoarder's den filled with garbage, rotting food, mold and human bodies. Maggots fell from the attic where Francois had stashed his victims in plastic bags and a kiddie pool.
A Seattle Times reporter and Pulitzer Prize nominee, Rowe ravenously hunts down vignettes of derangement and despair. Francois is described as a "hoarder of dead bodies and old candy wrappers." About a grieving mother, she writes, "Marguerite's mouth was framed like a marionette's, with deep grooves on either side, parentheses that worked back and forth—pulling tight, then slack—as she composed herself."
In contrast to Francois' hellish home life, Rowe was a bored adrenaline junky raised in a swanky Central Park West apartment—in high school and college, she let men pick her up in their cars, allowing them to think she was a prostitute. Dissatisfied with the small pieces on Francois' crimes she wrote for The New York Times, Rowe contacted him herself. Before their first call, she writes, "My heart pounded the way it had with boys in high school."
One of the most compelling parts of true crime is when a writer is drawn into the web of the serial killer's mind, but here the power dynamics seem perversely one-sided. Rowe—a highly educated, affluent white woman—is writing with disgust about a black man who comes from poverty and abuse. Her apparent obsession with Francois' "fat lips" and rank body odor doesn't help matters.
Perhaps in recognition of this, Rowe attempts to build some level of sympathy with the reader, comparing the domestic tensions of her own life with those of Francois and his victims. "We soldiered on, through vacations at the Cape and ski weekends in Vermont," she writes, "working our New England family myth." How brave.
No one would expect her to have much compassion for a serial killer, but Rowe's apparent contempt for Francois (and just about everyone else) gives the book a rotten odor. If Rowe is the fly in the book's title, she's also the spider. Francois is just some nearby corpse.
Claudia Rowe will appear at Powell's Books on Hawthorne, 3723 SE Hawthorne Blvd., on Thursday, Feb. 2. 7:30 pm. Free.