Tuesday, January 06, 2009

The Monster of Florence

When novelist Douglas Preston moved his family to the Florence countryside he expected to immerse himself in the very culture he planned to feature in his next thriller. Early on, however, Preston’s research brought him into contact with Mario Spezi, an Italian crime reporter who was expert in the ways of Italian police investigations, and Preston’s life was changed forever.

Spezi mentioned that Preston’s new home was within a stone’s throw of one of the more infamous murder scenes in recent Florence history and that the double murder was almost certainly the work of a serial killer yet to be identified. Spezi, as it turned out, had made his reputation as a journalist by becoming an expert on the murders and was obsessed with finally determining the killer’s identity. As the two talked, Preston became more and more taken with Spezi’s story and decided to postpone his new thriller until after he and Spezi had written a book together about The Monster of Florence.

By the time Preston and Spezi teamed up to investigate the crimes for their book, it had been more than ten years since the last murders. The Monster, between 1968 and 1985, had killed seven couples as they made love in their cars or campers while parked in out-of-the-way sites around Florence. In a fashion similar to England’s Jack the Ripper, he mutilated the bodies of his female victims, even carrying away body parts as trophies or reminders of his crimes.

Unfortunately for Preston and Spezi, they soon found themselves in conflict with various members of the Italian crime investigation establishment, some of whose members had used the murders to make their reputations and advance their own careers. More than one person had been charged with the murders over the years as diverse theories, ranging from satanic cults to medically trained or aristocratic killers, were trotted out for the benefit of the public. Sadly, according to Preston and Spezi, those responsible for solving the crimes were so anxious to pin them on any likely suspect that they were willing to create evidence as needed, ignore any conflicting real evidence, coerce testimony from known informants, and ruin the lives of anyone who fell into their path if that would help close the case.

Preston and Spezi could hardly believe what they discovered about Italian criminal investigators, prosecutors and judges. Successive investigators built case after case against men who fit their preconceived ideas of how and why the murders occurred. It was all so ludicrous and, most importantly, so corrupt, that the two pushed on with their own investigation long enough to place themselves squarely in opposition to official investigators. As a result, Spezi himself was eventually charged with, and tried for, the very crime he had a spent a lifetime investigating and Preston was threatened with arrest if he ever returned to Italy. Italian authorities knowing how many lives had been ruined and how many reputations built on false investigations greatly feared the publication of Preston and Spezi’s book and seem to have charged Spezi with murder mainly in order to suppress it.

The Monster of Florence should have been a horrifying and fascinating true crime thriller because of the nature of the crimes, how long they went on, how difficult it has been to identify the killer, and the inept, fraudulent, and almost comical investigation so terribly bungled by Italian authorities. But, because of the dry style in which the book is written (more the style of a newspaper article than a book), even a story filled with as many horrifying elements as this one becomes more boring than thrilling. The second part of the book, in which Preston and Spezi recount what happens when they themselves become suspects rather than reporters moves at a more lively pace but it leads to an ending that likely will disappoint most readers.

The audio version of The Monster of Florence is competently read for the most part but one aspect of the audio book quickly grows into a distracting annoyance. Much of the book is written in conversational form encompassing direct quotes from those involved and, although these quotes are naturally reproduced in English rather than in Italian, they are delivered in such an atrocious (and stereotypical) Italian accent that they are sometimes difficult to understand even in English. The result is that every Italian character begins to sound like every other Italian character in a book already filled with names that, for the non-Italian speaker, can already be difficult to distinguish one from the other. This makes listening to the audio version of The Monster of Florence into a tedious experience that might possibly be avoided by reading the book the old fashioned way.

Regardless, this one is not quite what it could have been.

Rated at: 2.5

(And that officially closes 2008 for me - the 143rd review I've written for books read in 2008. Finally.)

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