Interviews July/August 2006

The Journalist and the Murderer

Douglas Preston discusses his investigation of the "Monster of Florence"—and the strange plot twist that made him a suspect in the case

Between 1974 and 1985, seven couples were murdered in parked cars in the hills surrounding Florence. The police unearthed evidence dating back to a related 1968 crime, and the investigation has stretched forward to the present. Suspects in the case have included members of a clannish group of immigrants from the island of Sardinia, a “semiliterate” farmer who was tried and acquitted, and an as of now hypothetical, yet conniving, Florentine mastermind and his satanic sect.

Douglas Preston, a best-selling author of murder mysteries, moved with his family to Italy only to discover that one of these crimes had been committed just outside his Tuscan doorstep. Despite the spectacularly poor crime scene evidence, it was a mystery writer’s dream to stumble upon an unsolved murder. Preston quickly became acquainted with Mario Spezi, an Italian journalist who had covered the case for much of his career. As Preston writes in his July/August article “The Monster of Florence,” together the two writers “set off to find the truth.” 

Preston’s account of the case is chock full of gory details and has a chilling page-turner of a plot, but it is not solely the stuff of sensational dime-store thrillers. Rather, “The Monster of Florence” is a real-life story about the myriad individuals swept up in the case and their clashes and collisions with one another. The investigation remains open to this day, and as the victims’ stories have to some extent faded into the past, the stakes for the individuals drawn into the investigation have only risen. The personalities Preston touches upon range from the flashy prosecutor Pier Luigi Vigna to the devastated mother of one of the victims to the tragicomical chain of suspects. Preston’s frank self-portrait and his portrayal of how he and Spezi themselves became mired in the investigation’s legal proceedings are the icing on the cake.

Douglas Preston and Mario Spezi

Douglas Preston (right) with co-author Mario Spezi at one of the murder sites
(Photo by Christine Preston)

Based on appearances, Preston and Spezi are not a twosome one would expect to find on the wrong side of the Italian law. Preston writes and speaks eloquently and emphatically—his responses to questions often best captured in interspersed italicizations. In photographs he wears a neat blazer or comfortable sweater and glasses that lend him a studious and earnest air. Spezi’s white hair and his own pair of nearly identical corrective lenses suggest a similar gentlemanly demeanor. Yet Preston found himself interrogated about his own possible involvement in the case and forced to leave Italy. Spezi was arrested and imprisoned for three weeks for his meddling. Did Preston and Spezi go too far with their theories? Did the chief inspector in the case overstep the limits of his authority? 

In April of this year, after being released from prison, Spezi told the Italian newspaper, Corriere della Sera “I never pretended to be an investigator. I don’t believe in investigative journalism. I’m simply a reporter. I went hunting for news. I tried to verify [the facts] while respecting the law. I never had theories. I only put together facts.” Whether you call it reporting or investigative journalism, Preston and Spezi’s actions and experiences raise questions about the relationship between a legal system and the press. Although the stakes for national security are clearly not as high as in the Valerie Plame affair, the severity of Preston and Spezi’s treatment anchors Preston’s article in topical questions about the responsibility of journalists and the reach of the law.

Finally, Preston asks his readers to think about how we can understand crimes that seem to defy logic and rationality. What could lead a human being to act out so violently against complete strangers? During our interview, Preston reminded me of a famous Florentine whose answers to similar questions made a lasting impression on the canon of Western thought. Dante’s journey in The Divine Comedy is one of personal discovery; an exploration of the real consequences of Christian morality. Yet in a day and age when some attribute psychological deviance to environmental factors or chemical imbalances (one forensic psychiatrist even sent Chicago serial killer John Gacy’s brain to a pathologist for thorough testing post-mortem), we may question whether the Monster of Florence has an unambiguous place in one of the rings of Hell.

Douglas Preston is currently working on an English version of his book Dolci Colline di Sangue, which is currently a number one bestseller in Italy. I spoke with him by telephone on May 18.

—Justine Isola

What drew you to the Monster of Florence story in the first place? Was there a point at which you knew you were hooked?

As a novelist, I’m always out there looking for stories. I think most novelists get their material from the real world. So I’m constantly looking for stories, everywhere from Scientific American, to The Wall Street Journal, to outrageous stories that friends tell me that may or may not be true, to the crime pages of the newspapers. When I met Spezi, he started telling me about the Monster of Florence case, and it was like being struck by lightning. It was the most incredible crime story I had ever heard in my life. It was so incredible that for a while I really wondered if it wasn’t just all made up. It couldn’t be true. But obviously Spezi was a distinguished journalist, and I accepted it as true.

So how did it go? We started talking about the story. I said, it’s incredible that this story has never been heard by Americans—that this story, which is so famous in Italy and also famous in Germany, France, and has in fact been covered very thoroughly by the British press, had never once broken in the American press. I scoured the newspapers and nothing had ever appeared. And so instantly I thought, well, we should be the ones to publish it. We should tell America this incredible story. And so that’s how we got started.

Can you tell me more about your research into the case and your collaboration with Mario Spezi?

First Mario had to educate me about the case. It was an extraordinary education because it’s an incredibly complex story and at the time my Italian wasn’t as good as it is now. So it was a marvelous lesson not only in the case itself but also in Italian because everything we did was in Italian. When you learn a foreign language you often learn specialized sub-vocabularies. For example, when my computer went down I had to learn all of the Italian words for dealing with computers. And when the car broke, I had to learn all of the Italian words dealing with the parts of a car and fixing a car and all of those verbs. With the Monster case I had to learn all of those words dealing with murder, investigations, and the police and judiciary.

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