The Monster of Florence, by Douglas Preston with Mario Spezi

by Derwood Hunsdale-Talbot on October 14, 2010

The monster of florence by douglas preston

The next time I bitch about the judicial system in my country, I’ll be thankful that I don’t live in Italy. Admitting that is weird: I love Italy, the cuisine, the people, the art, the gorgeous countryside, the history.  I’ve always wanted to have a reason to live and work there, but after reading this book I’m not so sure about that.

Douglas Preston is an American journalist and well-known mystery writer. Mario Spezi is a crime reporter for La Nazione, the daily newspaper of central Italy. They meet when Preston moves to Italy with his family in 2000, intending to write a murder mystery.  He needs to research Italian crime investigation methods, and meets with Spezi, who “knows more about the police than the police themselves.”  Spezi tells him there was a double homicide near Preston’s house, done by the “Monster of Florence”, a serial killer whose murders spanned 1968 – 1985, and is still unidentified.

Preston and Spezi become friends, and as Spezi tells him about the history of the Monster and the police investigation, Preston becomes as obsessed as Spezi with the case, and they decide to re-investigate the murders and search for the real killer.

The history of the murder investigations is mind-boggling, with the multiple murder suspects, the botched police investigations, and the hysteria that swept Italy when family, neighbors and friends would accuse each other of being the Monster.  The Tuscan police had no experience with investigating serial killers.  Still, you have to wonder about prosecutors that rely on a conspiracy theorist who thinks there is some satanic element to this case.  The authors do their best to make it less confusing – they give you a map of the murders with who/where/when and a “Cast of Characters” that helps the reader wade through the Italian names.

Preston abandons his murder mystery and he and Spezi decide to write a book about the Monster. The police do not like the fact that they publicly disagreed with the police investigation, and the authors end up being a target of police investigation themselves: Spezi is jailed and Preston is told to leave Italy or he will be arrested.   It seems crazy that journalists can jailed because the police have lost face, and the authors sum up the reasons for this very nicely:

Some of the top investigators, prosecutors, and judges in the case…appeared to be more interested in using the case to leverage their power to greater personal glory.  Having committed themselves to a defective theory, they refused to reconsider their beliefs when faced with overwhelming contradictory evidence.  They cared more about saving face than saving lives, more about pushing their careers than putting the Monster behind bars.

As I was reading this book, I thought about Amanda Knox, convicted of murdering her roommate Meridith Kurcher, and wondered if she was really guilty, given this book’s expose of the Italian criminal justice system.  Then what do you know – the 2009 edition of the book has an afterword that discusses the investigation of Kurcher’s murder.  The chief prosecutor in the Amanda Knox murder trial is also the same man that jailed Mario Spezi and indicted Douglas Preston, even though he is under investigation for illegal wiretapping and other abuses of power. 

This book is both a fascinating read, and a cautionary tale of the risks involved in living where “innocent until proven guilty” isn’t a basic right.  Under Italian law, you can be jailed for up to one year without being charged!  I guess I’ll stay home.

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