This book was listed as one of the best true crime books ever written, and I can see why it was on the list. The Monster of Florence tells the story of Italy’s Jack the Ripper, terrorising Florence and the Tuscan hills for years before stopping, but not because he was arrested – his identity still remain a mystery. So it’s a good story, but what marks this book out is Douglas Preston and Mario Spezi’s approach: they’re both rigorous journalists, curious and critical. The structure of the book is unusual: the first part is the crimes, and how the police and media investigate them; the second part is almost a contemporaneous account of Preston’s and Spezi’s involvement as they themselves come under suspicion by the pride-fuelled police.
It was Spezi who coined the term “The Monster of Florence” when covering the stories for his paper. Over two decades, every summer the city of Florence came to fear who would be killed next.
“Between 1974 and 1985 seven couples – fourteen people in all – were murdered while making love in parked cars in the beautiful hills surrounding Florence…Close to a hundred thousand men were investigated and more than a dozen arrested, many of whom had to be released when the Monster struck again.”
The killings were brutal and ritualistic. But what is almost more shocking is the details of police incompetence, opacity and corruption fuelled by pride and ego.
Perhaps unwisely, I started reading this book while holiday in in Tuscany. Nothing like a bit of well-written true crime to keep you entertained in your down time. Despite the fact these crimes occurred some decades ago, the image that Preston and Spezi draw of Italy – its tensions, beauty, hypocrisy, corruption – create a very real and resonant image of the place I was.
And then the unusual structure of the book picked up the pace of the story. Preston is an American journalist who moved to Florence with his young family. Wanting to write an Italian murder mystery thriller, he talks to the hard-worn Spezi for inspiration. In discovering the story of the Monster of Florence, Preston realises what is going on in his city is better than any fiction he could write. Interestingly, there are a lot of books published on this investigation, but mostly by past prosecutors and investigators, published after convictions that later proved to be baseless; it is a case many a police officer has used for promotion.
Covering the story in detail from the beginning, Spezi had his own opinions on the investigation and suspects; lines of inquiry that he believes the police neglected. For their book Preston and Spezi start to look into these clues, embarrass the still-ongoing police investigation, and become a part of the investigation themselves. The second second part of the book is almost breathlessly recounted, as events unfold in a seeming real-time. The actions of the police are truly stunning, essentially targeting innocent men – journalists seeking the truth – who were damaging the image of the investigators.
So for some smart true crime, for a non-fiction murder mystery with a rather unusual structure and story-telling style, The Monster of Florence comes highly recommended. The crimes are fascinating and shocking, but the secondary and just as appalling revelations of police and judicial processional problems is just as interesting.