With The Monster of Florence, Douglas Preston and Mario Spezi take the genre of True Crime to an entirely new level. In fact, they take the genre to a new genre. Meta-True-Crime, perhaps? If there is a Fourth Wall for non-fiction, this book smashes right through it.
In fiction the Fourth Wall is what separates the viewer from the viewed. It is what keeps the story from being aware of itself and its audience. Occasionally an artist will knowingly push through this barrier for dramatic effect. Players on a stage will address the audience, a character in a book will reference their fictional state, or an actor will glance at the camera and give theater-goers a knowing wink. It is called “Breaking the Fourth Wall”, and it has been a part of entertainment at least as far back as Greek theater, with its all-seeing Chorus.
The Monster of Florence does something similar as a work of true crime. The authors set out to investigate and write about Italy’s most heinous serial killer; but soon they become suspects in the case, are investigated as accomplices, and are written about as if one of them may be the murderer. It is a bizarre sequence of events and it provides us with a look at not just the sick minds capable of the worst sorts of crime, but also of the twisted and corrupt who gravitate to these mysteries, and how their involvement can lead to injustices at least as scary.
From 1974 until the mid-80’s, someone went on a killing spree in Italy similar to America’s Zodiac. Targeting young lovers in their cars, the killer became infamous for his grotesque mutilation of the female victim’s sex organs. His reign of terror gripped all of Europe, shamed the country of Italy, and paralyzed the city of Florence. Despite the largest investigation in Italian history, the killer has never been caught, though several people have been arrested and some even went to trial and were found guilty.
Covering the murders from the very beginning was the Italian journalist Mario Spezi. Mario became known as the “Monstrologer” for his constant coverage and encyclopedic knowledge of the case. When Mario met thriller novelist Douglas Preston, after Preston and his family moved to the heart of Monster Country, he found an eager ear for this knowledge and the two became fast friends. That friendship led to a deeper look at the case and eventually to the detainment and harassment of both men as they got closer to the identity of the real Monster, and further from the orthodoxy of the Italian police department.
The book is divided into two sections. In the first we are given the details of the murders and a look at the country and people of Florentine Italy. The authors do a brilliant job of contrasting the horrid brutality of the homicides with the majesty of the Renaissance. We are presented with a clashing of two cities: one that represents the flowering of human intellect, the explosion of creativity that marks the end of the Middle ages and another Florence that reveals the worst that human beings are capable of. The sublime intermingles with the vile. And the result is a populace that must temper longstanding hubris with a new sensation: Shame. An emotion that many Italians shielded themselves from by casting suspicions as far from themselves as possible.
No Italian could have done this. Certainly no Florentine. It must have been a group of men. Wealthy men. Satanists. Americans. Journalists!
The resulting hysteria forms the second half of the book. Without a single homicide in it, this half is the one that will keep you up at night. Despite an enormous stroke of good fortune which connects the killer’s gun to an earlier homicide, the lead investigator becomes convinced that this miraculous bit of evidence is a dead end. Once this bias hardens, the case becomes a witch-hunt starring a core group of witnesses willing to say anything to investigators. The satanic cult is looked for so hard that it is found. The authors, Preston and Spezi, become targets of a furious law enforcement agency that has no oversight. And guiding every move is a paranoid, monomaniacal blogger whose wildest theories become state orthodoxy.
The Monster of Florence may be one of the sickest serial killers never apprehended. But what will really turn your stomach is the abuse of power and the complete incompetence of the Monster’s pursuers. Those who are obviously guilty are set free or not even investigated. Those who try to investigate and report become suspects; and massive amounts of time and resources are wasted in fighting them. Preston and Spezi take us deep inside the horrific process of being accused of something they didn’t do, their fear making them seem guiltier with each action. And part of me wondered if the abuse of power displayed in the second half of the book isn’t just as bad as that in the first half. If the evil of men in power, willing to forgo reason in a grab for even more power isn’t scarier and more common than the killings of madmen.
The raising of this question makes the book a brilliant success. Non-fiction is compelling because of the thin barrier between it and the reader. With contemporary non-fiction such as this, the wall is gossamer-thin. The Monster of Florence is genre-bending because Preston and Spezi reach through that protective film and pull us to the other side. We know there is almost zero chance of being the victim of a serial killer, but what of the abuse of power? It is almost certain that we already are its victim to some degree. Preston and Spezi raise our awareness of these dangers, and expose the madness of a system which lacks the balance of power to limit them. It is nothing less than a work of journalism which validates the necessity of its practitioners.
The Monster of Florence is great true crime, detailing a heinous array of murders that received almost no press in the United States. It is also a wonderful tour of an important and magical city and its surroundings. The Florentine Renaissance forever altered the course of human history. But, while the hills around the city are some of the most envied bits of real estate on the planet, it is among them that we are reminded of the animal that no art will rid us of.
Most importantly, this is a book about free speech. When the truth is stifled, anyone can be held against their will, taken from their families, and denied the simplest of freedoms with no rational cause. It is this facet of the book that makes it a must-read. It is a chilling and contemporary look at what happens when we allow our governments to erode our basic freedoms. It is also a reminder to those who speak for us that their task is an important one, and not one to be taken lightly nor to be abused. Douglas Preston and Mario Spezi show us all how it is done by exposing those who have forgotten.