The Spider and the Fly by Claudia Rowe is a spellbinding combination of memoir and psychological suspense where a female journalist chronicles her unusual connection with a convicted serial killer and her search to understand the darkness inside us.
The story begins as any true crime story might—a reporter writes a letter to a criminal in prison. But this isn’t just any reporter or any criminal. It’s a woman on the edge of a dark obsession and a black serial killer with a preference for women who look just like Claudia. This isn’t a cat and mouse game—sometimes the mouse is clever enough to get away. This really is a spider building a web and a fly who gets caught with no chance for escape.
Claudia Rowe is a stringer for the New York Times when this story begins. She’s on the crime beat in Poughkeepsie, NY when she hears about women who keep disappearing. She’s poised to chase down all the leads, investigate the families, and talk to the police when she learns that the killer has confessed.
The killer is Kendall Francois, and the confession is a bit of a shock as he wasn’t on anyone’s radar for murder. When Rowe begins to exchange letters with Kendall, she has no idea how much of an impact it would ultimately have on her life.
The Spider and the Fly is more memoir than it is the typical true crime book. I found it very intriguing to see the reporter’s side of things. Often, we are presented with the cold facts and a focus on the aftermath of a crime, or an overview of how an investigation revealed the killer. But not here.
We know who the killer is within the first ten pages, and there’s very little investigation to even cover. Readers of true crime are often left with the “why” of a crime unexplained, and this is Rowe’s purpose as she writes letter after letter to Kendall. But, Kendall is a wily one and seeks more and more from her before he gives up much of himself. And Rowe is caught in his trap before too long:
I was important to him in some way. That much I knew. Whatever the facts might be about psychopaths and their incapacity for feeling, the faceless figure whom Kendall called “Ms. Rowe” or, more and more often, “Claudia,” meant something to him. That he had walked a similar path with dozens of women—and that those stormy sagas of betrayal had almost nothing to do with the women themselves—was a humbling realization that came much later. At first, the feeling of mattering was like a drug, and I could not get enough. I held on like a dog with its jaws clamped round a piece of meat. Never did I take the next step and consider what it meant that a man who had murdered eight women was focusing his attention on me.
Claudia Rowe’s obsession with Kendall Francois had a huge impact on her personal life. She was hiding letters from her boyfriend and ignoring him in favor of the story. It’s a rather frightening thing to watch as her life begins to unravel. As I read on, I wondered if she’d ever get what she needed from him. If he would give her the why of the crime. I wondered if her personal sacrifices to the story would be in vain.
I believe it’s a modern myth that non-white serial killers are rare or nonexistent. The media seems to cover white serial killers and their white victims more often. Rowe does not touch upon this in the book very thoroughly, though she does discuss the racial makeup and tension that divides the primarily white town of Poughkeepsie.
I sought out the statistics about serial killers myself and learned some surprising facts. In 2012, Radford University partnered with Florida Gulf Coast University to create a serial killer database. As of the September 4, 2016, update, 39.8% of all serial killers recorded between 1900 and 2010 were black. 59.8% of serial killers recorded in 2010 alone were black, following a decade-by-decade increase of this number. A number that does not fit what has long been considered the typical profile of a serial killer.
Claudia Rowe’s memoir is astonishing. Readers are taken into the mind of the reporter as she seeks the truth from a violent man. Her obsession is frightening as she goes to such great lengths for the truth. After years of correspondence, phone calls, and jail visits, Rowe learns a lot about the mind of a serial killer. But in the end, I think it’s what she learns about herself that is most important.
This literary true crime is unexpected and intriguing and will keep you up all night wondering what’s going to happen next. It’s perfect for those looking to dig a little deeper into the criminal mind and learn how a reporter seeks the truth.
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Ardi Alspach was born in Florida, raised in South Carolina, and now resides in New York City with her cat and an apartment full of books. By day, she's a publicist, and by night, she's a freelance writer. You can follow her on Twitter at @ardyceelaine or check out her website at ardyceelaine.wordpress.com.