In her memoir “The Spider and the Fly,” journalist Claudia Rowe recalls her reporter-subject relationship with a serial killer. Rowe appears Jan. 27 at the Elliott Bay Book Co., Jan. 31 at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park and Feb. 4 at Page 2 Books in Burien.
Kendall Francois stood out long before he became a serial killer.
Mostly, he was noteworthy for his size — 6-feet-4 and nearly 400 pounds — but also because he was African American, his dark skin an exception in the mostly white communities of upstate New York. Plus, as Claudia Rowe tells us in “The Spider and the Fly: A Reporter, a Serial Killer, and the Meaning of Murder” (Dey Street, 288 pp., $26.99), he had a tendency to beat up prostitutes. This made him a known quantity to the cops, who gave him a nickname: “Fat Albert.”
Given these facts, Rowe writes, the Poughkeepsie police might have made an immediate connection between Francois and the eight women who disappeared, one at a time, during the mid-1990s. But they didn’t. Instead, it was Francois himself who offered an unblinking confession, then pointed them toward the home he shared with his parents and sister. There, they found all eight bodies stored like Christmas ornaments in the attic.
The author of “The Spider and the Fly” will discuss her book at these area locations:
•7 p.m. Friday, Jan. 27, at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co. (206-624-6600 or elliottbaybook.com).
•7 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 31, at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park (206-366-3333 or thirdplacebooks.com).
•1:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 4, at Page 2 Books in Burien (206-248-7248 or page2books.com).
Rowe’s account of the murders is just the beginning for a book that blends true crime with memoir. As her subtitle suggests, its locus lies in her obsession with Francois. Rowe, who covered the murders as a stringer for The New York Times, initiated their five-year correspondence, letters that are quoted throughout and which graduated to phone calls and eventually face-to-face meetings. She describes Francois as “a man of reptilian impulses, with only intermittent control.” Yet, in her telling, he remains coy and controlling throughout their acquaintance, while she offers up her inner thoughts and past actions with keen disregard.
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Rowe, now a reporter for The Seattle Times, was struggling to find her professional footing in Poughkeepsie when Francois’ crimes came to light. Having grown up in New York City, she found her new home unfriendly and parochial. With Francois, she identified a possible story line: “how this cloistered community had spawned a killer.”
Unfortunately, this prospect explains more about Rowe’s frame of mind, an eagerness that pushes her to the front of the story, than the pathology that lurked around Francois.
The household in which he grew up stunk so much from rotting food and filth that the odor obscured the smell of decaying bodies above. Rowe consults mental-health experts and concludes with the unsurprising statement: “As a psychopath he appeared to me suspended, with one foot in our daylight world, where he struggled to negotiate shame, aspiration, confusion and love,” while in the other he dwelled in “a nether-realm of ghouls who felt nothing at all.”
Her own experience with the man shows how Francois concealed a keen intelligence within the body of a brute. “Stop trying to identify with me,” the perceptive killer advises her at one point, even as she confesses that she cannot. She explains that trying to figure him out was how she purged her own anger and shame over a dysfunctional childhood and the self-destructive behaviors that resulted.
Needless to say, no matter what her remembered deeds or their cause, they are mere peccadillos in contrast to that of a serial killer. “The Spider and the Fly” never adequately addresses this awkward juxtaposition or really explains “the meaning of murder.” But Rowe’s up-close portrait of Francois offers a fascinating meditation on the psychopathic mind.