Non-fiction – hardcover; Virgin Books; 336 pages; 2009. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
Last year I read an amazing true-crime book called The Vienna Woods Killer: A Writer’s Double Life by John Leake about a journalist who reported on the brutal murders he himself had committed. It was one of those “truth is stranger than fiction” books — and I loved it.
The Monster of Florence is another true-crime book hugely reminiscent of The Vienna Woods Killer. A collaboration between an American crime thriller writer and an Italian investigative journalist, the book traces a series of brutal double-murders in and around the hills of Florence between 1968 and 1985 and then, in a bizarre twist of fate, reveals how the authors themselves became suspects. The fiction writer, Douglas Preston, is interrogated, accused of being an accessory to murder and of planting false evidence, and told to leave the country; the journalist, Mario Spezi, is thrown into jail and accused of being the Monster of Florence himself.
The book opens with Preston explaining how he moved to a stone farmhouse in Florence with his wife and two children in August 2000. He planned to write a murder mystery set in Italy, but when he met Mario Spezi, a local crime reporter (in order to learn more about Italian police procedures) he discovered something that made him change his mind. Apparently a serial killer, dubbed the Monster of Florence, had murdered two young lovers in the olive grove outside Preston’s front door. His interest was piqued: perhaps it might be more interesting to write a true-crime book.
The first half of The Monster of Florence tells the story of the seven couples — 14 people in total — murdered while making love in the hills surrounding Florence by a serial killer who has never been found. As a crime reporter, Spezi made a career out of investigating the murders and their subsequent police investigations, and had garnered unparalleled knowledge and expertise on the crimes. But he also became a thorn in the side of the police, often showing up weaknesses in their investigative procedures and calling their credibility into question.
The second half takes on a new twist, explaining how the authors, working in tandem, had discovered new evidence which they believed pinpointed the killer. The police, already annoyed that Spezi was continually stealing their thunder, turned the investigation onto their detractors, with devastating consequences.
This is a rip-roaring read, more exciting than any crime thriller Preston could make up himself, and it barrels along at lightning quick pace. I overshot two lunch hours because I was so caught up in this too-weird-to-be-true story.
But, more importantly, this is a book that highlights the dark underbelly of Italian society and the shadowy, often corrupt world of the Carabinieri, which polices both the military and civilian populations, the Italian police and the judiciary. It’s also an important book about freedom of speech and how one journalist put his life on the line because he believed so strongly that the truth must come out.
The Monster of Florence, which hit the New York bestseller list upon publication in the USA earlier this year, will be published in the UK on January 29, 2009.