The Meaning Of Murder

I don’t read memoirs very often.  When I do it is usually one written by a public person who lives a public life and therefore their memoir can’t stray too far from what is already available out there.  Politicians are a good example of this.  I even more rarely read celebrity memoirs because, quite frankly, I don’t care much for what most celebrities have to say about almost anything.  When it comes to memoirs by non-public people I find that the line between memoir and autobiographical fiction to be so thin that there isn’t really a difference. With most people who read autobiographical fiction it seems they read it as a veiled memoir anyway, see most of the works of Philip Roth for examples of this.  For me when I read a memoir I can’t help but see the things that the writer probably embellished or altered in order to improve the storytelling.

Another literary genre I read even less of is “true crime.”  I went through a phase in my teenage years when I read true crime books, as well as horror and chiefly suspense novels.   Gradually I returned to my childhood interest in science fiction and fantasy, reading Robert Heinlein and Ray Bradbury while still very young, and also developed my tastes in a different direction. I still read crime and horror novels from time to time but true crime is a genre that I have rarely returned to.  It was something that I associate with my teenage obsession with all things morbid, and it hasn’t much interested me since.

That is why it was surprising to some people I know that I have been gushing about Claudia Rowe’s The Spider And The Fly, one of the best books I have read this year  and a weird combination of two genres I am not known for reading.  I first became aware of the book after Rowe did an interview I read.  She is a writer for the Seattle Times, the newspaper of my adopted hometown and I found her discussion of what led her to write this book to be fascinating.  I put it on my to read list but didn’t get to it until  months later.  How much I was engaged with it is shocking enough but I am also amazed that the readership of the true crime genre has been less enthusiastic.

Rowe’s book is a memoir of her correspondence with serial killer Kendall Francois, who murdered at least eight women over a two year period between 1996 and 1998.  Rowe had been working as a “stringer” for the New York Times while living in Poughkeepsie, New York and she became fascinated with the case of Francois.  Though it was something that she would be expected to cover for the paper, she went beyond that, writing a letter to Francois and gradually beginning a “friendship” with him that began to take a disturbing direction.

What would attract true crime aficionados to this story is obvious.  Francois is atypical of a serial killer in a number of ways,  the most discussed issue that he was black while all his known victims were white.  His victims were all prostitutes, who Francois  was obsessed with “saving” and then when they did not respond to him the way he liked he killed them out of rage.  He hid the bodies in his parents’ house with both his parents and younger sister never discovering the bodies despite some complaints about the smell.

The specifics of the case promise the kind of lurid and shocking details that fans of such books crave.  Also, the “set-up” makes some readers think they will read a real life Silence of the Lambs, where a woman will be pitted in a battle of minds with a clever killer, trying to get the information she needs from him while he attempts to burrow into her psyche.  The fact that the book does not deliver on either count is what most online reviews that lean toward the negative complain about.  Rowe does include some of those details, but only to get at the family dynamic that could create such an environment in that house.  As for the second complaint, if people really expect serial killers to be devious masterminds who engage in cat and mouse games maybe they deserve to have their puerile fantasies encounter reality once in a while.

This is mostly what Rowe is trying to do with her book and she succeeds at it wonderfully, even as if alienates a large chunk of her the readership.  Rowe is interested how somebody like Kendall Francois, the boy and teenager that teachers and acquaintances describe as smart and kind, could become the brutal killer of eight women we now know he was.   Questions of nature and nurture are brought up in a variety of ways with no easy answers.  Rowe herself is initially conflicted with her sympathy toward Francois as a human being and her repulsion at his crimes and how he manipulated his victims.  Since most of his victims were prostitutes it is tempting to look at the conditions that led them on a collision course with Francois whose views toward women, like most serial killers, is objectifying.

Another theme in the book is about what attracts people like Rowe to somebody like Kendall Francois in the first place.  Rowe considers that she is interested in whether evil is born or made, but she also considers there is a certain attraction to morbidity.  She mentions the 90s obsession with serial killers that permeated the pop culture, and also her teenage obsession with Nazis, something she finds hard to admit because she is ethnically Jewish. Its this introspection by Rowe that seems to turn many readers off, either accusing her of making the book all about her, or of being callous toward Francois’s victims.  This review from NPR is a pretty harsh example.

An NPR review might be forgiven for this kind of harshness because perhaps the reviewer was assigned this review and true crime is not something they are a regular reader of, though I assume that NPR assigns book reviews based on some level of genre familiarity.  What is kind of odd though is this sentiment is echoed through a number of online reviews, where Rowe is attacked for basically writing a book that examined her own motives for wanting to start a correspondence with Francois.  Some reviewers outright complain that the book is more interested in psychological examination than heaping gory details, but not a one of them stops and think that the impulses that Rowe is examining are the same ones that led them to pick up this book in the first place and that such impulses are worth examining.

I’ve noticed this with horror fiction and films as well.  As a genre, horror is polarizing to begin with, and its probably the genre that has the most loyal fan base while at the same time a large number of people will avoid it outright.  Sometimes a horror writer will decide to morally challenge their audience.  This usually means using a Hitchcockian technique, make your audience want something and then punish them for wanting it.  What Rowe does gets a similar reaction because many readers of crime fiction do not want to self-examine in what attracts them to such things in the first place.  Imagine if an Agatha Christie novel called out its audience for the fact that they enjoy stories that treat murder like a fun puzzle to be solved.  I don’t think most people who love British “cozy” mysteries would like that, but it doesn’t mean there isn’t value in such self-reflection.

As Rowe develops a relationship with Francois two things become apparent.  The first is that her relationship with him as a reporter is inherently exploitive in some ways.  Rowe is not letting herself off the hook for that.  In fact, I would say her book is all about explicitly examining that issue.   The second thing is that Francois is starting to develop a fixation on her similar to the fixations he had on the women he killed.  Rowe  repeatedly throughout the book documents times when law enforcement and prison personnel point out her physical resemblance to Kendall Francois’s victims.   This starts to get uncomfortable.

There are two other criticisms of Rowe’s book lobbed by the NPR review that I would like to address.  The first is Rowe spends no time on the victims.  This is just simply false, though the time she spends with herself and her own motives could be said to take away time the book could spend on other things, the victims are as much a part of the narrative as most true crime books.  Rowe researchers the victims and talks to their loved ones about them, and it is through their stories that she starts to hate François for what he had done.

The second criticism is on the subject of race.  Its true that some of the comments made about race in the book can come off like patronizing white guilt out of context but within the context of the book they make perfect sense.  Kendall Francois was a rare serial killer who killed people outside of his own race exclusively and this is explored a lot in the book.  While Rowe doesn’t beat your head over it, some self-hatred toward African Americans might have been part of Francois’s motivation.  There is still one missing victim, who was black, that the police were certain that Francois killed but they never got him to confess, even when he confessed to all the other murders.  Why he might have done this is part of the discussion.

There are not a lot of answers in Claudia Rowe’s account of what happened with Kendall Francois but really a series of complex questions.  I think this is typical of a lot of true crime books, but what makes this book fascinating and ultimately great, is that Rowe asks the kinds of questions that are not normally asked and blurs the line between writer in subject in a way that implicates the reader.