Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Douglas Preston (with Mario Spezi)/THE MONSTER OF FLORENCE

Cover: The Monster of FlorenceI don't read many "true crime" books. Couldn't bring myself ever to open Vincent Bugliosi's HELTER SKELTER, for example, although for a time it seemed as if everyone else was reading it. But there's one variety of this genre that I do like. If I had to put a name to it, it would be "literary true crime."

Think, say, of John Berendt's MIDNIGHT IN THE GARDEN OF GOOD AND EVIL: a writer moves to an exotic, almost gothic locale (Savannah, GA, in Berendt's case). As he settles into his new community, soaks up its history, its mythology, he learns of some spectacular crime, most often a murder, which took place years ago. He learns that citizens are still willing to discuss it -- with reticence, in whispers. Fog, and dark (sometimes moonlit) nights, play a significant role. Gradually, in the writer's head, a story takes shape: one with universal, operatic overtones, a creepy setting, and a cast of wild, exaggerated personalities.


Background: Over a period of decades, from 1968 to 1985, a series of murders occurred in the vicinity of Florence, Italy. All the victims were couples found in or near their cars, parked in rural or wooded areas (and thus presumably surprised, mid-tryst, by the killer). In all but one case, each pair of victims consisted of a man and a woman. (The exception, two homosexual men, is believed to have surprised the killer: certain signs indicated that he panicked when he realized this wasn't going to be his typical adventure.) The male victims were more or less obstacles to be disposed of, and shot in their cars; the women were all not just killed but mutilated. (There were no signs of rape, however.) All the murders involved the same gun; the bullets, indeed, all came not just from the same manufacturer but from the exact same box of bullets.

The killer came to be known as the Monster of Florence. Over the years, the arc of the Monster's history was covered, especially, by Mario Spezi, the award-winning Italian journalist who was Douglas Preston's co-author.

With each killing, the Monster story picked up steam as sensational news. The matter eventually would come to the attention of Thomas Harris, author of THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS; Harris would go on to use much material about the case (and about Florence itself) in the sequel, HANNIBAL. For instance, Harris's fictional Hannibal Lecter works in Florence on the curatorial staff of a Florentine count and his family; the actual count's house was used as a setting not just for the novel, but for the HANNIBAL film. Preston interviewed that charming count numerous times, even becoming something of a friend and visiting the house and the main reception area, "where Hannibal Lecter plays the clavier."

Obviously you don't pick up a book like this expecting a lot of laughs, or even simple comfort in any vague form. If you pick it up at all, you steel yourself for some ugly moments, and you expect to encounter some nightmarish personalities.

But as in the Berendt book, the central horror is mitigated with little baroque curlicues of comic relief scattered throughout, swirling around some of the lesser characters and events.

Probably my favorite oddball from THE MONSTER OF FLORENCE was... well, I won't use her name, lest The Book Book be subjected (thanks to Google) to a barrage of "The X-Files" Lone Gunmen-style rantings. Let's call her Madam X. She would probably describe herself as a journalist. Her principal media outlet, though, is neither print nor broadcast, but the Internet; she runs a conspiracy-theory Web site, on which she "published" many of her interesting theories about the Monster: who he was, why he killed, what psychic or other dark forces might be involved in motivating -- or unmasking -- him.

Here's an excerpt from an email Madam X sent to Douglas Preston, one of many he received after she learned he was writing a book on the murders:
Know that even while I write you, I am thinking that I am speaking not just to you, but also to your wife, and to those you love and that I know well how much they mean to your life as a man, beyond that of a journalist and writer, but simply a man, a friend, a father... I have embarked on this battle, this search for the truth, I do it only to maintain a promise I made to the Good Lord and to my Spiritual Father, a famous Exorcist, Father Gabriele... Dear Douglas, I have the photographs of every crime, when the victims became aware of the Monster, and screamed, their scream was photographed by a minicamera given by the secret service...

And I found, dear Douglas, in Japan, a document that I think is useful, which would prevent the Monster from killing someone close to you. I am undertaking investigations of this document...
And so on.

All of which could be dismissed as the feverish and... and interesting contribution of an outsider to the storyline. Except for one thing: for years, Madam X's speculations fueled the official investigation by Italian authorities into the Monster's crimes. It's not clear to me exactly how she got involved in this investigation to begin with. But once the connection was exposed, the authorities -- like authorities almost anywhere might, I guess -- dug in their heels, steadfastly refused to be embarrassed, hinted at "other" evidence which would support the conspiracy theorist's imagination.

(The strange twists of this imagination would eventually lead to Mario Spezi's imprisonment for being the Monster of Florence (!), and also to Preston's heavy-handed interrogation by the police as a possible accessory. One result of which was to chase Preston completely out of Europe, back to the US.)

With some justification, you might wonder if the Monster was ever caught. No. Everyone accused in connection with the case was eventually exonerated, often by judges horrified by prosecutorial behavior so grotesque that "misconduct" doesn't begin to cover it.

Was the Monster ever even identified?

Well, no, not officially. But Spezi and Preston make an outstanding case for one individual. I'll leave it to you, if you're interested, to pick up the book -- yes, steeling yourself -- and get to the heart of that mystery.

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