Douglas Preston moved into an ancient stone farmhouse near Florence, Italy, with his family in 2000. He had visited Italy with his family when he was 13 and fell in love with the atmosphere. In 1999, he returned on assignment for the New Yorker. "As a writer, I could live anywhere," he thought. "Why not Florence?" • Preston, the author of many bestselling horror and techno-thriller novels alone and with writing partner Lincoln Child, intended to write a murder mystery set in Florence, involving a lost painting of the mysterious Renaissance artist Masaccio. He had no idea his decision to live in Italy would be so fateful. • A sociable fellow despite his dark fiction, Preston soon met Italian journalist Mario Spezi, who for decades had been investigating and writing about a string of murders that started in 1968. Spezi's reporting sometimes sounded like it could have been the plot of a novel, given the unlikely twists, but he was living in the world of fact, not fiction. • The Italian journalist had termed the unknown murderer (or murderers) the Monster of Florence. Spezi informed Preston that one of the crimes had occurred on the site of the stone farmhouse newly rented by the Preston family. Given that connection, Preston, blessed with relentless curiosity, could not resist learning more.
After all, he writes, "Many countries have a serial killer who defines his culture by a process of negation, who exemplifies his era not by exalting its values, but by exposing its black underbelly." He thought of Jack the Ripper in England, the Boston Strangler in the United States, the Monster of Dusseldorf in Germany.
Now Preston knew, for the first time, about the Monster of Florence, linked to the murders of 16 people between 1968 and 1985. Most of the victims were couples killed in parked cars or campgrounds; female victims were sexually mutilated.
Various men had been charged by Italian authorities with one or more of the murders, but Preston found the quality of the investigations appalling. "Even at the time of the 1968 double homicide," he said, "the investigation uncovered many clues that a group of men had committed the killings, clues that were ignored or dismissed." Some suspects had been brought to trial; one had been convicted but was then acquitted on appeal.
Spezi, telling Preston that the law enforcement investigations should be considered unreliable, believed he had determined the identity of the actual killer. Preston bought into the theory, and they decided to write a book together.
The book appeared in Italian stores in April 2006, but only after Preston had been interrogated by Italian authorities for allegedly obstructing an investigation — and Spezi himself had been arrested and imprisoned as a "Monster of Florence" suspect.
Three weeks later, Spezi emerged from prison with the charges dropped. The police detective and the prosecutor mishandling Preston's interrogation, Spezi's arrest and other aspects of the serial killing investigation eventually had to defend themselves against abuse of office charges.
As the American edition of the book was going to press in 2008, Preston wrote, "The Monster investigation grinds on with no end in sight. . . . The question I am most often asked is this: Will the Monster of Florence ever be found? I once believed fervently that Spezi and I would unmask him. Now I'm not so sure. It may be that truth can disappear from the world completely, forever unrecoverable."
The lack of closure might unsettle some readers. Preston concedes that "a crime novel, to be successful, must contain certain elements," including a process of discovery that leads to the truth. He cannot concoct such an ending when writing true crime.
Furthermore, with so many characters and so many theories of the case, the book is sometimes difficult to follow. Preston is a likable narrator, however, and his commitment to untrammeled press freedom is inspiring.
The book is, above all, a cautionary saga about how the criminal justice system, in Italy as well as the United States, can spin out of control, sometimes convicting the innocent and sometimes convicting nobody at all despite mountains of evidence.
Steve Weinberg is a freelance investigative reporter who writes frequently about the causes and effects of wrongful conviction.