Kendall Francois raped and killed at least eight women in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., leaving their bodies to rot in his house while his family went about their lives, apparently unaware.
Seattle Times reporter Claudia Rowe, then a stringer for The New York Times, was living in Poughkeepsie at the time of the murders. When she heard that Francois had been arrested, she rushed to his family home:
"[S]taring up at the Francoises' front porch that sultry September morning, blood in my veins turning to ice water, I knew I was looking at a story that would prove Derrick wrong."
Derrick was her boyfriend, and he had told her that reporters are not "real writers." As it happens, Rowe's book is not a piece of reporting, but an amalgamation of clichés: intrepid lady reporter becomes obsessed with rapist/serial killer who murders women who resemble her, and begins sending him emotional letters. She isn't interested in facts unless they illuminate some aspect of her own life. Rowe knows it isn't true journalism, and says so: "The first rule of reporting is that the writer is never the story." But even if she abandons the guise of journalist, it just isn't appropriate for her to be the center of Kendall Francois' story, particularly in the callous way she goes about writing it.
Rowe laces her descriptions of their early relationship with implicit eroticism: He wants intimately detailed information about her life, in exchange for answering questions about her own. She writes about the "sensuality" of the physical mail they send. Francois' brutality "tantalizes" her. His interest flatters her. When she visits him in prison, her heart "pounded the way it had with boys in high school." The feeling of mattering to him "was like a drug." But she gives few pages to his victims, after establishing their convenient resemblance to her.
The ethics of writing a book that sexes up a serial killer while mostly ignoring his victims is queasy at best. There are two axes of weakness: aesthetic and ethical. And the horrible truth is that I'd be much more willing to put up with the way Rowe more or less sells out these women if she did it with subtlety and élan. That's not fair, of course: It's like being easier on bank robbers who burgle with brio. But her writing, if competent, is purple, and her reporting patchy.
She has a curious lack of empathy for anyone but herself and the fictional version of Francois she has created in her mind. This is clear from the oddly material metaphors she chooses to describe people.
She sees someone who knew one of the victims on the street: "I could hardly miss the reporter's gold mine standing before me ..." Prostitutes she interviews who claimed Francois raped and assaulted them "grabbed for the attention [of their interviewers] like children at a candy buffet." A man who had grown up with Kendall walked around "trilling his outrage like a drag queen on ether." These eerily heartless metaphors treat them as local color or as useful sources, but not as people.
Francois is black, and Rowe is white. One of the odder themes of The Spider and the Fly is Rowe's need for Francois to think about his race the way she wants him to. She asks him about himself, and he tries to talk about his love of Macbeth. But she abruptly changes the subject: "I confessed that tears poured down my face whenever I watched footage of civil rights movements; that I winced when welcomed into hotels where I had no reservations, knowing my treatment would be different if I were black." But, "None of this got me any deeper into Kendall's life or heart or past, despite his demand for the information," as if her performance of guilt demanded payment in kind.
Lecturing him about black history, she complains, "My attempts to share this history with Kendall were met with scorn." Why does Rowe think it is her place to educate him on racial history? She wants and expects him to be black in bizarrely specific ways. The Francois she likes to imagine, she writes, is "alone in his bedroom, listening to blues and soul, the music I liked." Instead, she is disappointed to learn he prefers white pop. "I had enjoyed thinking of Kendall as complex and independent," she complains. Sorry your pet serial killer doesn't live up to your assumptions about black people, I found myself scribbling in the margin. (This book had me writing all over it: The page that casually describes her "Nazi fixation in the tenth grade, a common teenage deviance" is a sea of question marks).
Fiction and true crime have different demands. And I can't help but think — perhaps unfairly, since no one thinks their own writing is bad — that a story that touches on so much suffering has an almost ethical demand to be the best book it can be. Rowe is not a truly bad writer. But she enters into a world of pain and violence and comes away only with a book about herself.