Entertainment

The Bookmonger: A reporter’s risky odyssey into the mind of a killer

“The Spider and the Fly” by Claudia Rowe

Before Claudia Rowe became an award-winning Seattle newspaper reporter, she was a stringer for the New York Times in upstate New York, “sleepwalking through life like I was waiting for a wave to pick me up and rush me to the shores of someplace else.”

She pinned her hopes on Kendall Francois, an African-American man locked away for life in Attica after pleading guilty to assaulting, raping and murdering eight women in Poughkeepsie, the town she had come to a few years before. Rowe thought that by “peering into cruelty, dissecting it to study the components,” she would get insights into a murderer’s mind – and a juicy writing project.

But “The Spider and the Fly” is more than a report of the cagey give-and-take between reporter and subject. It also picks at the scabs of Rowe’s own childhood, which had been blighted by anger, repression and rebellion.

True crime? Memoir? Psychological thriller? Every couple of pages, this book becomes something else.

Rowe repeatedly veers into reflections on her own risky choices, from accepting rides with strangers and engaging in other questionable behaviors as an adolescent to courting an audience with a serial killer as an adult.

She talks with families of the victims, sometimes comparing their backgrounds with her own in a “there but for the grace of God” manner. More than once, she alludes to the fact that her appearance is similar to the victims the killer had profiled. She notes that a detective warns her, “Don’t get yourself in a position where he can put his hands on you. I think he has plans.”

Is this the author showing off?

She attributes her obsession with risk to her bourgeois and dysfunctional birth family, but then dances around the topic with only a scattering of examples of their blameworthy deeds.

Likewise with Francois’ family. It would seem unfathomable that the murderer’s mother, father and sister remained oblivious to the rotting corpses Francois stacked up in the attic over time, particularly when maggots started showering down from the ceiling. But Rowe steers clear of grilling the family members, instead picking away at the edges by talking with former employers and acquaintances and conjecturing about deviant behaviors.

And why wouldn’t an investigative reporter delve into the local police department’s handling of the Francois case? Had it not been for their tepid mismanagement and failure to follow up on leads, they might have prevented the rising number of murders. Finally, when a detective did get around to paying a call at the putrid Francois family home, he didn’t bother to discover the source of the stench or the maggots.

Ultimately it was Francois who volunteered the information that he was responsible for the deaths of eight women.

“The Spider and the Fly” dabbles with issues of race, psychology, parenting and evil – then drops them and moves on restlessly. Rowe’s search for self and purpose, meaning and resolution, yields more frustration than answers.

The Bookmonger review appears each week in Take Five. Contact her at bkmonger@nwlink.com.

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