Recently, I seem to be reading a lot of books centered in and around the Italian city of Florence, treasured for centuries as the birthplace of the Renaissance. Everywhere there is art to behold, from paintings, sculpture and to architecture, and tourists crowding the city for the galleries and shopping. To the casual observer, it may just seem like a slice of heaven on earth.
But long-term residents know better. Between 1968 and 1985 eight double murders occurred, all of young lovers, with the female member of the pair brutally mutilated. One of the first reporters to hear of the crime was Mario Spezi, and through the years, he followed the crimes and the many stories of just who the Monster could be. He carefully assembled his notes, and wondered along with everyone else as to just who the killer was, dubbed The Monster by the press and the authorities.
American author Douglas Preston traveled to Italy with his wife and two of his children in 2000, living in a farmhouse near Florence. He was busy working on a new mystery novel, but kept getting sidetracked by the mystery of the Monster. A mutual friend introduced him to Mario Spezi, and very soon both men were good friends and investigating the riddle of the murders. Over the years they kept at the mystery, and soon they were discovering that the truth was very different than what the police and the carabinieri were saying what happened...
The narrative is broken up into two parts, the first half of the book centered around Spezi, and the general investigation, and the trials and suspects that well, weren't that credible. Spezi kept writing about the case, but the public and the press all seemed to want the more sensationalistic approach -- including rumours of a satanic cult being responsible, and a common sort of doorstop found in Tuscan homes actually being a 'device to communicate with the infernal regions.' Even a report from the FBI that contradicted the notions that were being reported did nothing to slow down the fantastic, and rather crackpot ideas.
The second half of the book, told from Douglas Preston's point of view, detailing his meeting with Spezi, and with a notable aristocrat of Florence, and his own story. Unlike the first half, this one does have a bit of humour here and there to lighten things up, mostly centered around being a very naive American and trying to learn the language.
About page two hundred or so, the story starts to run off the rails. Spezi has been sparring with the local investigator in the case, Michele Giuttari and Judge Guiliano Mignini, and in a very weird twist, have both Spezi and Preston indicted in the case.
Here is where my blood ran cold, as the reader gets to find out that not only the Italian judicial system impossibly corrupt but that many of the rights that Americans take for granted -- a fair and honest hearing, the right to have an attorney present, to know what you're being charged with and having access to the same evidence that the police and prosecutors do -- well, they simply don't exist in Italy. You can simply be denounced, the police can toss you into jail and there you can rot until they decide to speak to you.
Mario Spezi would go through the worry and humiliation of a prison stay and trial. Douglas Preston would be questioned and threatened with prison, and when he was freed, decided that the best thing to do would be to leave Italy with his family as soon as possible.
What finally happened is a shocker. For Americans, secure in the thought that we have the right to know, to be able to face our accusers openly, this is a very rude awakening. As to the real identity of the Monster, there are hints as to who he might be, but I fear that the truth will never be known.
A collection of black and white photos give faces to the principal players in the story, along with a map of Florence, with the sites of the murders marked. An index is included as well.
A warning -- the descriptions of the murders are brief, but very graphic, so this story is not for the faint of heart. What I came away with from this story was a sense of sorrow for the victim's families, a great deal of anger at the level of incompetence of the Italian officials, and thanking god that I live in a country where law at least has a fighting chance. Sometimes.
Four stars overall, and recommended, but only for those who enjoy true crime stories. Not for the squeamish.