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

This case has become in so many ways a personal story not only for Spezi and the police investigators, but also for you. Were there any decisive points at which you thought, “We’re really making progress,” or, “Wait a minute, we’re clearly heading down the wrong path”? What were the most satisfying developments or frustrating moments during your investigation?

Well there was a point that was kind of shocking for me. I’m a novelist, and tend to think of stories like this as being not quite real. I mean, these murders did happen a long time ago. You tend to think of the story novelistically. As Spezi was telling me the story I lost sight to a certain extent of the fact that we were dealing with human beings and enormous tragedy. That was really brought home to me when we went to Vicchio, the birthplace of Giotto, where the mother of one of the victims lived in a house just beyond the town square where they have this huge statue of Giotto.

It was a beautiful spring day, a perfect Italian town. We went to a shuttered house where this woman lived all by herself in severely reduced economic circumstances because her husband had basically spent all their money in a desperate attempt to try to find the killer of their only daughter. And then he had died of a heart attack in the police station. They had once been very wealthy and she was now living in this house by herself and had to rent out rooms. And it was dark. It was a beautiful day but the shutters were closed, and I walked into this house and instantly felt the enormous, overpowering weight of tragedy, of the most horrible thing that could happen to a mother. And I was physically staggered by it. I suddenly realized, this is a terrible, terrible story.

After visiting this mother, we went to the site where her daughter and her boyfriend were killed. It was a most beautiful spot. It was heartbreaking. It was almost magically beautiful. It was spring and the flowers were all coming up. And we could see beautiful meadows and an old stone farmhouse in the distance and the contrast again was staggering. It just once again brought home that this is not some story. This is not a plot for a novel. This is reality. And, having children myself, it just shocked me.

Did this experience affect how you think about and write fiction?

It has really helped my thinking as a novelist. I write thrillers, murder mysteries, but I suddenly found myself looking at a murder that I would write about, which was part of a plot in a different way. I thought, “My God, in a sense as a novelist I’m killing a human being in weird a way.” I suddenly felt a lot more ambiguous about what I was doing as a novelist.

Do you think any of the individuals or facts from the Monster of Florence case will ever work their way into your fiction? Or do you feel that you need to maintain a line between your journalistic investigation and your novels?

When I first started writing fiction, I drew a very clear line: I would never, ever put a real person into one of my novels as a fictional character. I think that’s a very dangerous thing to do. As you become better known as a novelist, your power to really harm somebody that way increases. So I would never do that. It isn’t to say that I don’t take pieces of real people. Obviously when I construct characters they’re based on real traits that real people have. But I’ve never taken a character wholesale.  However, everything else I touch, everything else I experience, and everything else I see goes into my novels. Certainly the Monster case has had a huge effect on my writing, a huge effect.

Can you elaborate?

It has affected everything. For example, I now understand the Italian criminal justice system and the way the Italian police and the Carabinieri work better than I understand the workings of the American police. Lincoln Child and I are co-authors of a series of thrillers, and we have since set parts of several of our books in Italy. And in fact the final quarter of The Book of the Dead, our book that will be published May 31, is set in Florence and then on the island of Stromboli, which is an island off the coast of Sicily that has a live volcano on it. It’s a very dramatic place.

Can you give us an update on your legal standing or Spezi’s legal standing? Has anything changed since we closed the piece?

No, the prosecutors don’t tell you anything about the process or what to expect or how long it will take. It’s just the opposite. They resolutely refuse to give you any information about that. The State department called me several times. They said I had to find a lawyer. They said, “They’re not dropping the charges against you, for God’s sake get yourself a lawyer.” I didn’t want to because it’s expensive. But I finally hired myself a lawyer in Italy at great expense to try to handle this situation.

And has your lawyer been more successful than you at accessing information about your case?

Well, Italian law does require the authorities to give my lawyer a certain amount of information. However, it’s quite clear that they’re going to give my lawyer the minimum amount of information necessary under the law. The entire investigation is secret. It’s all under seal. Nobody really knows what’s going on. There are leaks to the papers that clearly are coming from the prosecutor’s office, which I think is something that happens in the United States as well—leaks to favorite journalists. And that’s really the only source of information that I’ve got, the papers and the press. I didn’t even know that additional charges had been made against me until I read about them in the Italian papers.

Speaking of charges, now that Spezi has been freed, will anyone be blamed for his arrest?

Let me tell you something kind of interesting. I have a friend in Italy who comes from an ancient and noble family that predates the Medicis. He’s an extraordinary historian, and he really seems to have a tremendous understanding of the Italian system and how things work there.

I called him up right after Spezi was arrested and said, “What does this mean?” He said to me, “They’ve gone too far. They have made a very serious mistake in arresting Spezi. There’s going to be an uproar and what will happen is that the judge who arrested Spezi will not take the fall, but the policeman, Giuttari, is going to take a fall.” He said, “Mark my words, you will find that at some point they will take him down.” And I said, “Who is they?” And he said, “Well, the powers that be. This is an embarrassment to Italy, this arrest of Spezi, and if there is an uproar, believe me they will take him down.”

About a week after Spezi was released, all of a sudden there was news all over Italy that Giuttari was being investigated for falsifying evidence in the Monster case, not connected with Spezi but with something else. Judges in Genova had brought very serious charges against him. I called my friend and he said, “It’s exactly what I predicted, isn’t it? … It’s not a coincidence that this happened right after Spezi was released. Italy was embarrassed.”

So this is all still unfolding as we’re talking?

I’ll give you an example of a recent development. There’s a very important women’s magazine in Italy—it’s like Cosmo. They interviewed me and published the interview with quotes that were made up—incredible quotes! For example, they said that we’ve sold the film rights to the book and that I was demanding that Brad Pitt play me because he was “il più bello dei belli,” the most beautiful of the beautiful men. The article also quoted me: “Brad Pitt, sono io” meaning “Brad Pitt, that’s me!” Sean Penn was going to be the Monster of Florence and Giancarlo Giannini would play Spezi.

I read this article and I thought, “Oh my God.” Because this is such an important magazine and because Italy is Hollywood-crazy, all the newspapers in Italy picked up the story. So then there’s a huge story about a big movie that is going to be made in America with Sean Penn and Brad Pitt … and none of it is true. The magazine ran a picture of me right next to a huge picture of Brad Pitt with a quote saying, “Brad Pitt must play me because he is the most beautiful of the beautiful.” It was sort of a joke because, of course, I don’t look anything like Brad Pitt.

You never know. Maybe the rumors will turn out to be true.

Well, that’s sort of how things work in Hollywood. It’s a game they play. It often happens that someone makes a big noise about a project, the rights are being vied for by several top producers, when in fact none of it’s true. After they’ve gotten everyone excited, then they present the project and hope that someone will take it. But it’s all hype. They hype it ahead of time. The strange thing is that one of Italy’s top filmmakers now has rushed in and wants to buy the rights.

So it worked! Do you imagine that you will try to become less involved in the future? In the piece you quote Spezi’s comment: “No, I’ll not deal with the Monster affair anymore.”

Sometimes it’s impossible not to be involved. There is interest in doing a movie in Italy, and so I think that our involvement is probably not at an end, despite what we might want. Who knows, the article in The Atlantic may sell to Hollywood as well. Dateline NBC wants to do a two-hour program on the whole case, which is very important. It’s a great news program. So, like it or not, we’re going to be involved in the case for a while longer.

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