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

There seems to be so much evidence to support the theory of the lone suspect, the Carabinieri’s theory. But there are police investigators who continue to pursue the satanic sect theory. Why do you think police investigators like Michele Giuttari are convinced that there is an occultist group behind the killings?

I have some theories in that regard. The first one is that, interestingly enough, serial killers are very rare in Italy. It’s a phenomenon that’s much more common in America, Germany, France, and some of the Germanic speaking countries—Holland, Belgium, places like that. In Spain and Italy, the phenomenon is extremely rare. So Italians aren’t really used to dealing with serial killers. That’s the first thing.

The second thing is that I really think it has something to do with the Italian character. Dante tells you a great deal about how Italians think about good and evil—in the Inferno in particular. Although Italy has become a very modern advanced industrial country, like every country it retains ancient attitudes and beliefs that sometimes are completely subsumed in modernism, but still exist on a deep level in people’s minds. I think a lot of Italians look at these crimes and see that they are so horrible, so dreadful, that it’s not possible for a lone human being to have committed them. That they must in the end turn in some way to the Devil, to Satan. It’s a very Italian thing, and I think it comes out of a very ancient belief that the Italians have about the nature of good and evil.

I was recently talking to a friend of mine whose family is Italian. She suggested that the idea of Black Masses and satanic sects are more vivid in the popular imagination in Italy than in the United States.

That’s right. This belief in the prevalence of Black Masses and satanic sects in Italy is very common. People really do believe that there are satanic groups out there that are bent on committing great evil. What surprises me about the Monster of Florence case is that I, and I think most Americans, tend to dismiss out of hand the idea that a satanic sect could have been looking for female body parts for its Black Masses. That’s just absurd on the surface. And yet very intelligent, highly educated people—friends of mine in Italy—consider that to be a viable hypothesis.

It shocks me every time I talk to someone and he or she says, “Well, it could be. There’s no reason why it couldn’t be.” I go over the evidence and I say, “Now look, there’s all kind of evidence against that theory.” And they say, “Well, it still could be.” It’s like the evidence hasn’t made any difference. They want to believe it because it’s comforting, I think, to believe that the Devil in some way is behind this. The other explanation—that it’s a lone killer—is no explanation at all because there’s no motive.

Do you think that the investigation has become personal for Giuttari?

I think even more than for Mario and me. I mean, Mario has written several novels. He’s covered many newspaper stories beyond just the Monster case. And I obviously have a career as a writer and journalist beyond the Monster case as well. Giuttari really doesn’t have anything beyond the Monster case. His entire career rides on this case and solving it—or at least not making a fool of himself while he investigates. And in fact, Giuttari’s books on the case have been huge number-one bestsellers in Italy. I think his last book on the Monster case sold 80,000 copies in hardcover, which is a stunning amount for a book in Italy. So yes, it is personal. I think that everyone in Italy acknowledges that Giuttari seems to carry a great personal animosity against Spezi.

Judge Giuliano Mignini, the public prosecutor who interrogated you, is another important player in the case. Was Mignini just doing his job? How much weight do you give to the idea that Mignini had it in for Spezi and you?

First of all, as a novelist I’ve written about what it’s like to be interrogated. I understood that it’s a psychologically daunting experience, but you really can’t have any conception of what it’s like to be strongly interrogated until you undergo it. It’s a humiliating experience. You have no power. And it’s especially difficult in a foreign language. In order to speak well and to be convincing you have to have tremendous command of the language. And when you don’t you sound like a liar even when you’re not. I remember in this interrogation thinking, “My God, I sound like a liar. If I were Mignini, I wouldn’t believe me, stumbling, stuttering, and sweating, and using the wrong words, and backtracking, and saying things two or three times, and trying to explain what I meant.” I was thinking, “They’re going to take me from this room and put me in jail, and I’m not going to see my wife and kids again, or at least for a while.” I was terrified that I was not going to see the outside world again. Because of course the crimes they were accusing me of were very serious.

As for Mignini himself, I think he’s a sincere man and an honest and incorruptible judge. I don’t think that he’s a bad man. I think he really believed that I was guilty and that Spezi was guilty. I could see that in the interrogation he believed I was a liar. So, yes, I think he was doing his job the best he could. I think in many ways he was badly misled by Giuttari, the police officer who was running the investigation.

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