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The Spider and the Fly: A Reporter, a Serial Killer, and the Meaning of Murder by Claudia Rowe

A journalist with trauma of her own exchanges a torrent of letters with a serial killer in this absorbing, suspenseful memoir.

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Claudia Rowe is a careworn reporter in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., when a local man confesses to the rape and murder of a series of missing women. The case has journalistic potential, but there is more to the story. As Rowe and killer Kendall Francois communicate in letters and phone calls and during prison visits, the journalist’s life goes into a tailspin. Her boyfriend leaves, taking their dog; she moves to the woods and lives in a barn like a hermit. As her obsession with Francois grows, Rowe delves into her own past, a troubled childhood and damaged relationships leading to what she sees as a lifelong fascination with brutality.

Chasing violence and fear has led her to a serial killer who can seem like a big teddy bear as well as a disturbed predator. Rowe yearns to understand where a man like this comes from, how a murderer is made, and the intricacies of race and class in Poughkeepsie and beyond. She puzzles over Francois’s family home, so stuffed with rot and detritus and denial that decomposing bodies went unnoticed. What she learns is that Francois may not be a riddle she can solve.

The Spider and the Fly is a work of personal exploration, as much about Rowe’s growth as an individual as it is about Francois’s crimes. The reflective tone and dogged probing into the ugliest of human behaviors enrich this blend of true crime, memoir and suspense. Looking into darkness, Rowe gains some understanding and some release.


This review originally ran in the February 7, 2017 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 7 cans of grapefruit juice.

notes on podcasts & a DNF

I’ve started a new job, part-time on the weekends, serving beer in the taproom of a craft brewery a few towns over. It’s great! but I have a good bit of a commute again now. I haven’t listened to an audiobook since school started in January, because I haven’t wanted to crowd my brain any more than it already is (or get my stories crossed). So Liz has recommended a few podcasts for me. She is super into the podcasts, so I know she restrained herself, by starting me off with just six. On my last few drives to and from the brewery, I have really enjoyed listening. I’m going to try to stick to just a few sentences per story here…

Another Round, Episode 85: The Same Stuff as Stars (with Amanda Nguyen).

Heben Nigatu and Tracy Clayton discuss rape culture and outer space with Amanda Nguyen, a college student who has founded an advocacy organization for rape survivors, written new legislation and gotten it passed in Massachusetts, and is studying to be an astronaut (wow). All three women have engaging voices & personalities here, and the story is obviously layered and impactful.

Criminal, Episode 63: Rochester, 1991.

Kim Dadou served 17 years for the murder of her boyfriend, who beat her within an inch of her life, which life she was defending when he died; now she’s an advocate for domestic assault victims. Excellent intimate tone and a narrative that is horrific but compelling. Listener is left rooting for Kim, naturally.

Death, Sex & Money, I Was Your Father, Until I Wasn’t.

When a woman he’d slept with called to say she was pregnant, Tony became a father to a little girl he loved deeply–until he found out she wasn’t his after all. He and the biological father discuss their experiences. They are disarming, honest, vulnerable.

Embedded, Police Videos: Flagstaff.

A 2014 video shot from a police officer’s eyeglasses shows his death by shooting, perhaps the first of its kind and a major internet sensation. Kelly McEvers delves into this video and its meaning to various viewers, in particular the families of the officer and the shooter. I appreciate Kelly’s personal approach–sharing her own reactions–and the variety of perspectives she finds.

Death, Sex & Money, Live from the Internet: Jason Isbell, Amanda Shires & You.

(This is the podcast that got Liz & I started on this exchange, because I’m an Isbell fan. I remember listening to the first Death, Sex and Money show with Isbell back in 2014.) Live-recorded call-in show with Anna Sales taking questions for Jason & Amanda about addiction, relationships, and their art. These are two wise, thoughtful, compassionate and smart individuals, and I could listen to them all day (and have).

Other Liz-recommended podcasts I’ve got queued up include Revisionist History, Planet Money, and Radiolab, so stay tuned. And, this one did not come from Liz, but about a year ago I really enjoyed Love + Radio‘s Choir Boy, an interview with a bike-racer-turned-bank-robber. What a weird story, truly stranger than fiction.

In other news, briefly: I had a strong negative reaction to Donald Revell’s The Art of Attention (from Graywolf’s The Art of series). I guess the good news is this book seems to be aimed exclusively at poets, and I am not one. Revell seems to me to be more interested in showing off his vocabulary and convoluted constructions than communicating; I found him deliberately opaque; and a central thesis seems to be that the “craft” of writing is neither teachable nor worthy of teaching—so why this book? Anyway, moving on.

A Very English Scandal: Sex, Lies, and a Murder Plot in the Houses of Parliament by John Preston

John Preston energetically recounts extraordinary crimes of British political high society.

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Novelist John Preston turns to nonfiction with A Very English Scandal: Sex, Lies and a Murder Plot in the Houses of Parliament. In this thrilling story, a member of Parliament almost gets away with murder.

Jeremy Thorpe was an MP for the Liberal Party in the 1960s and ’70s, became his party’s leader and looked poised to lead a coalition government. His charisma enchanted everyone he met. But he had secrets. When the battle to legalize homosexuality was being fought, Thorpe had affairs with other men, harassed and abused them, and eventually–when one young man wouldn’t go quietly–conspired to have him killed. After years of posturing and payoffs, and a final dramatic scene of attempted murder worthy of fiction, Thorpe faced charges of conspiracy and incitement to murder at London’s Old Bailey.

Preston tells this salacious tale with a mostly straight face. The characters he portrays are often ridiculous: Thorpe’s relentless optimism and self-importance is countered by his victim Norman Scott’s sad struggles with mental illness, and the worshipful devotions of Thorpe’s friend and helper, David Holmes. Preston’s central source, Peter Bessell, is a fellow MP and fervent friend deeply mired in Thorpe’s intrigues. Bessell is perhaps the most vulnerable character in this drama: a bit absurd, but earnest, he is powerless to resist Thorpe’s magnetism. A Very English Scandal is a story of human weaknesses and outrageous spectacle. Preston’s play-by-play will captivate readers of true crime, British upper-crust history and classic tragedy alike.


This review originally ran in the October 25, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 6 letters.

book beginnings on Friday: A Very English Scandal by John Preston

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. To participate, share the first line or two of the book you are currently reading and, if you feel so moved, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line.

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The title of this book alone tickles me.

So begins A Very English Scandal: Sex, Lies and a Murder Plot in the Houses of Parliament:

One evening in February 1965, a man with a fondness for mohair suits, an unusually wrinkled face and a faint resemblance to Humphrey Bogart walked into the Members’ Dining Room at the House of Commons.

I smiled when I read this line, which so tidily sets a scene with those odd descriptive details that bring a character to life. I think this is a great starting sentence, and I’m looking forward to more! Stick around.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst by Jeffrey Toobin

New research on the Patty Hearst case reveals a story as compelling and confounding as ever.

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Jeffrey Toobin (The Run of His Life) brings context, nuance and new sources to a dramatic story in American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst.

The 1974 kidnapping of heiress Patricia Campbell Hearst by the radical group self-styled as the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) was a media sensation. A nation watched with shock as the victim joined her captors in bank robberies and other crimes. Decades later, Toobin helpfully sets this salacious story against its backdrop: the influence of the Hearst name; the fledgling nature of televised media, particularly live news feeds; and the cultural upheavals underway via the radical political left, especially in the San Francisco area where Hearst lived. Surreally, a bumbling, incompetent SLA plagued by internal strife managed to elude federal investigators for many months. Jim Jones, Bill Walton and Ronald Reagan make cameo appearances.

American Heiress avoids firm conclusions about Hearst’s level of agency in her own crimes. As Toobin observes, the phrase “Stockholm syndrome” was not yet in use at the time, but psychological coercion was the focus of Hearst’s criminal defense. With the information uncovered, Toobin can reveal only a woman making the best of circumstances, “a clear thinker, if not a deep one.”

While most older readers will have preconceptions about the events, Toobin’s ample research and new sources offer a fresh version. An author’s note states that Hearst declined to comment, and explains the research methods. This history satisfies with its level of detail and emotional distance from a subject who remains mysterious.


This review originally ran in the August 2, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 7 shots fired.

The Jolly Roger Social Club: A True Story of a Killer in Paradise by Nick Foster

A chilling tale about an expat American in Panama whose murderous crimes went undetected for years.

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Journalist Nick Foster explores a backwater archipelago of Panama in The Jolly Roger Social Club: A True Story of a Killer in Paradise, a work of true crime and national history. As he investigates the serial killer known locally as Wild Bill Cortez, Foster asks: What is it about this expat society, or this place, that allowed these events to unfold?

William Dathan Holbert was originally from western North Carolina, where he showed an early disrespect for the law and his friends. Foster’s investigative work follows a young man who defrauded his mentor and experimented with white supremacy before running for the border with his girlfriend, Laura Michelle Reese. But it was in the small village of Bocas del Toro in Panama that he came into his own, eventually killing a number of fellow American expatriates for their cash and real estate. On the property of an early victim, he opened a bar called the Jolly Roger Social Club (“over 90 percent of our members survive”), where he groomed future victims. Holbert and Reese still await trial in Panama.

The Jolly Roger Social Club intersperses Holbert’s crimes with Panamanian history, from the building of the Canal to Manuel Noriega’s dictatorship and its ties to United States politics and economics. With this broader perspective and interviews with expats in Bocas del Toro who knew “Wild Bill,” Foster explores the factors that provided Holbert with the setting where his crimes went undetected for years: a remote corner of the Caribbean where people sometimes simply… disappear.


This review originally ran in the July 15, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 7 signatures.

Alligator Candy by David Kushner

This tender, intimate memoir probes the childhood murder of the author’s older brother.

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On a Sunday afternoon in 1973, 11-year-old Jon Kushner rode his bike through the woods to the 7-Eleven. His four-year-old brother, David, had asked for one kind of candy in particular. Jon’s family never saw him alive again. Journalist David Kushner still struggles to fathom his brother’s murder and his family’s experience; Alligator Candy is his memoir of investigation and connection.

Kushner lovingly portrays his hippie parents, eldest brother and Jon, who struggled with an auditory deficit disorder and was known for his compassion. Their community in Tampa, Fla., included activists and academics, and emphasized freedom and the outdoors. It was perfectly natural for a boy to ride alone through the woods. Jon’s murder presaged an end to the “ability of kids to simply get on their bikes and go,” as one family friend put it.

Alligator Candy explores how a family and community survive loss. The twin terrors of not knowing fully what happened versus knowing the horrific details of exactly what was done to Jon comprise only two reasons that this is a painful story. However, Kushner can also be funny, and he skillfully captures a child’s innocent curiosity, even in loss. He writes so simply, but this is deceptive. Alligator Candy is sensitive, insightful and understated.

Forty years later, Kushner (Bones of Marianna; Masters of Doom) still struggles with grief, isolation and guilt. In writing Alligator Candy, however, he discovers certain details of his brother’s case for the first time, begins to comprehend his family’s coping methods and, finally, achieves a long-sought connection with Jon.


This review originally ran in the March 25, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 7 pieces of gum.
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