Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The Monster of Florence (Book Review)

I've been a huge fan of the writing duo, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, for quite some time now. For over a decade, they have kept me entertained with their novels that are mixes between Michael Crichton thrillers and Michael Connelly mysteries.

Their books started off as one-off murder mysteries that usually involved a seemingly supernatural killer or beast. Slowly, they started to build a universe that all their books existed in and eventually, the star of the novels, the odd and enigmatic, Special F.B.I. Agent Pendergast, rose to take center stage.

I'm going to review the newest Pendergast novel in the near future but my current review deals with an extraordinary nonfiction book by just one of the writing duo, Douglas Preston.

The Monster of Florence not only recounts the tale of the most famous serial killer in modern Italian history, but, Preston also tells how his Italian journalist co-author and himself became embroiled in the shady police investigation and were themselves charged with serious crimes that could have seen them spend years in jail.

Whether it be Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, Devil in the White City, or City of Falling Angels, the last few years has seen some pretty great literary accounts of little known or forgotten murderers and serial killers. The Monster of Florence takes its place amongst the best of these types of books.

Between 1974 and 1985,  a serial killer stalked the Tuscan countryside outside of Florence, Italy. Every few years during this time, he came out of hiding and brutally murdered young couples who had snuck off into the countryside to make love in their cars. He simply shot the couples at point blank range but it was what he did to the female corpses that made him a horror figure of epic proportions to the Italian people.

To make the tale of the monster even more tragic, the local police and government detective agencies bundled the investigation at every opportunity. They made up bizarre, satanic conspiracy theories. They ruined the lives of countless innocent people as they directed their misguided investigations at one person after another.

All along the way, journalist Mario Spezi, Preston's Italian co-author, was their to chronicle each horrific killing and each monumental investigational blunder. In 1998, Preston moved to Florence. Upon arrival, he learned that his little chateau was literally within sight of one of the infamous spots where the monster had struck.

Preston was told to look up Spezi. After a few meetings, it was obvious they would become fast friends and they both started digging further and further into the killings and what they believed to be the true avenue to find the killer.

One thing Preston quickly realized, though, was that in Italy, even more so than most countries, making the police look bad and lose face was going to cost him and his co-author deeply.

The last 100 pages of the book is a surreal account of how the vindictive government officials, judges, and local law enforcement closed in on Spezi and Preston with outrageously trumped up charges. They were bullied, interrogated, and one of them was even thrown in jail. Preston acknowledges that he wouldn't put half of what he experienced into one of his fiction novels. It was just too unreal to believe.

The Monster of Florence is a tremendous book. It reminded me why I love nonfiction. More often than not, real life makes fiction look like bad melodrama. The monster was an epic story in Italy and most of Europe and even today, most Americans don't know a thing about it. The monster was a killer more brutal than Jack the Ripper with more murders than the Zodiac, Son of Sam, and Boston Strangler combined.

Start this book to learn about one of the most notorious killers in history. Finish the book to find out how corrupt a judicial system can be and to learn the fate of Douglas Preston, one of the best authors out there at the moment.

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