Grand Central, 2008, 322 pages, C$28.99 hc, ISBN 978-0-446-58119-6
Douglas Preston is best known as an author of contemporary thrillers. Either by himself (Tyrannosaur Canyon, Blasphemy) or collaborating with Lincoln Child (the Pendergast series), he has earned a sizable following as one of the most popular fiction writers. In The Monster of Florence, however, he switches to non-fiction; first, with a historical description of the serial killer known as “The Monster of Florence” (“Between 1974 and 1985, seven couples –fourteen people in all—were murdered…” [P.5]) and then what happened to him when he got too close to the story (“I was accused of being an accessory to murder, planting false evidence, perjury and obstruction of justice, and threatened with arrest if I ever set foot on Italian soil again” [P.5]). It’s the story of a writer as character, and it’s as good as his novels.
The Monster of Florence starts innocently enough in 2000, as Preston contemplates a major lifestyle change: having earned a comfortable living as an author, it’s now possible to him to envision living the life he has always imagined for himself. Why not move to Italy’s bucolic countryside, not too far from Florence, and research a long-gestating murder mystery novel?
But a chance encounter with a journalist and a mention of his current residence dredges up the sordid story of a serial killer preying on couples. The first half of the book is a historical account of the crimes. The second one is far more personal and tells of what happens when a visiting American inadvertently starts making local authorities look bad. In-between, we get a good look at Florence, a city that has shaped Italy (Florentine upper-class dialect largely defined the Italian language after the unification of the country) and yet, even today, stands apart from the rest of the country due to its self-image as a cradle of fine culture.
But first, the true-crime aspect: Essentially unknown to American audiences, the story of the Monster of Florence spans roughly sixteen years from 1968 to 1985. During that time, eight couples were murdered in the hills around Florence where they had sought a bit of intimacy. Three men have been arrested and convicted for those murders, but many still suspect that the real killer has not been caught; among them is Mario Spezi, a Florentine journalist who has covered much of the case for a local newspaper. When Preston meets Spezi, he is quickly fascinated by the case, and the suggestion that justice has never been served upon the true killer.
That’s when The Monster of Florence takes an unexpected turn: As Preston comes closer to the case and forms a team with Spezi, their investigative efforts start annoying the Florinese police forces, who eventually accuse Spezi and Preston with obstructing justice… and more.
Worth keeping in mind throughout the narrative is Preston’s description of the Italian way of life, fregatura, littered with casual corruption: “doing something in a way that is not exactly legal, no exactly honest, but just this side of egregious.” [P.171]. When you’re a member of the community, fregatura works. When you’re out, well… bad things happen. Preston is grilled by the Florinese police forces, then told to get out of the country and stay out. If you ever want to understand the experience of being intimidated by police authorities while visiting a foreign country, then this is the book for you. What’s a bit of xenophobic colour compared to permanent exile? Preston can leave (and does so), but Spezi is in a very different situation, and eventually Preston has to use every bit of influence he has in the media world to try to get his friend out of trouble.
The first half of The Monster of Florence is ordinary: straight-ahead material, well-fleshed but dealing in criminal mysteries without a satisfactory answer. It’s the second half of the book that raises it above the background din of similar true-crime stories. We’re used to see thriller writers as bookish personalities in every way detached from what they write about… so it’s a bit of a shock to see a familiar author dragged into the madness of a criminal case, and the way authorities react to his efforts. Numerous nods to other thriller figures (chief among them Thomas Harris, who was the first to write about the Monster of Florence in Hannibal) make this book of particular interest to genre readers despite its billing as non-fiction. Ironically, it’s Preston’s personal story rather than Spezi’s descriptions of the murders that may put you off from visiting Florence. But that’s what you can expect when a stranger-than-fiction story lands upon a novelist: a crackling good book.