The Monster of Florence

A true crime story
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My wife and I had always dreamed of living in Italy. Six years ago we finally made the move with our two young children. We rented a fourteenth-century farmhouse surrounded by olive groves and vineyards in the enchanting hills south of Florence. There were two famous landmarks near us: the villa La Sfacciata, once the home of Amerigo Vespucci, the Florentine explorer who gave America its name; and the villa I Collazzi, said to have been designed by Michelangelo, where Prince Charles painted many of his watercolors of the Tuscan landscape.

The olive grove beyond our front door boasted a third landmark, of sorts. It had been the site of one of the most horrific murders in Italian history, one of a string of double homicides committed by a serial killer known as “the Monster of Florence.” As an author of murder mysteries, I was more curious than dismayed. I began researching the case. It didn’t take me long to realize I’d stumbled across one of the most harrowing and remarkable stories in the annals of crime.

I contrived to introduce myself to the journalist who was the acknowledged expert on the case, a former crime correspondent for La Nazione named Mario Spezi. We met in Caffè Ricchi, in Piazza Santo Spirito, overlooking Brunelleschi’s last and greatest church. Spezi was a journalist of the old school, with a handsome if cadaverous face, salt-and-pepper hair, and a Gauloise hanging from his lip. He wore a Bogart fedora and trench coat, and, knocking back one espresso after another, he told me the full story. As he spoke, he had his pocket notebook open on the table and he sketched his thoughts—I later learned it was a habit of his—the pencil cutting and darting across the paper, making arrows and circles and boxes and dotted lines, illustrating the intricate connections among the killings, the arrests, the suspects, the trials, and the many failed lines of investigation.

Between 1974 and 1985, seven couples—fourteen people in all—were murdered while making love in parked cars in the hills of Florence. The case was never solved, and it has become one of the longest and most expensive criminal investigations in Italian history. More than 100,000 men have been investigated and more than a dozen arrested, and scores of lives have been ruined by rumor and false accusations. There have been suicides, exhumations, poisonings, body parts sent by post, séances in graveyards, lawsuits, and prosecutorial vendettas. The investigation has been like a malignancy, spreading backward in time and outward in space, metastasizing to different cities and swelling into new investigations, with new judges, police, and prosecutors, more suspects, more arrests, and many more lives ruined.

It was an extraordinary story, and I would—to my sorrow—come to share Spezi’s obsession with it. We became friends after that first meeting, and in the fall of 2000 we set off to find the truth. We believed we had identified the real killer. We interviewed him. But along the way we offended the wrong people, and our investigation took an unexpected turn. Spezi has just emerged from three weeks in prison, accused of complicity in the Monster of Florence killings. I have been accused of obstruction of justice, planting evidence, and being an accessory to murder. I can never return to Italy.

It all began one summer morning many years ago in the Florentine hills. The date was June 7, 1981, a Sunday. Mario Spezi, then thirty-five, was covering the crime desk at La Nazione, Florence’s leading paper, when a call came in: a young couple had been found dead in a quiet lane in the hills south of town. Spezi, who lived in those same hills, hopped into his Citroën and drove like hell along back roads, arriving before the police.

He will never forget what he saw. The Tuscan countryside, dotted with olive groves and vineyards, lay under a sky of cobalt blue. A medieval castle, framed by cypress trees, crowned a nearby rise. The boy seemed to be sleeping in the driver’s seat, his head leaning on the window. Only a little black mark on his temple, and the car window shattered by a bullet, indicated that it was a crime scene. The girl’s body lay some feet behind the car, at the foot of a little embankment, amid scattered wildflowers. She had also been shot and was on her back, naked except for a gold chain, which had fallen between her lips. Her vagina had been removed with a knife.

“What shook me most of all,” Spezi told me, “was the coldness of the scene. I’d seen many murder scenes before, and this wasn’t like any of them.” Everything was unnaturally composed, immobile, with no signs of struggle or confusion. It looked, he said, like a museum diorama.

Due to the sexual nature of the crime, it was assumed that the killer was a man. And yet the medical examiner’s report noted that the killer had not sexually assaulted the woman. On the contrary, he had assiduously avoided touching her body, except to perform a mutilation so expert that the medical examiner speculated he might be a surgeon—or a butcher. The report also noted that the killer had used a peculiar knife with a special notch in it, probably a scuba knife.

Spezi’s article caused a sensation: it revealed that a serial killer was stalking the countryside of Florence. In a sidebar, next to the article, La Nazione pointed to something the police had overlooked: this killing was similar to a double homicide that had taken place in the hills north of Florence in 1974. The article prompted the police to compare the shells recovered from both crimes. They discovered that the bullets had been fired by the same gun, a .22-caliber Beretta “long barrel” firing Winchester series “H” copper-jacketed rounds, which, according to ballistics experts, probably came from the same box of fifty. The gun had a defective firing pin that left an unmistakable mark on the rim of each shell.

The investigation that followed lifted the lid off a bizarre underworld, which few Florentines realized existed in the beautiful hills surrounding their city. Because most Italians live with their parents until they marry, sex in cars is a national pastime. At night, dozens of voyeurs prowled the hills spying on people making love in parked cars. Locally, these voyeurs were called “Indiani,” or Indians, because they crept around in the dark, some loaded down with sophisticated electronic equipment like suction-cup microphones and night-vision cameras. Following a quick investigation, the police arrested and jailed one of these Indiani.

A few months later the killer struck again, on a Saturday night with no moon, this time north of Florence, using the same Beretta and performing the same mutilation. This third double homicide panicked Florence and garnered front-page headlines across Italy.

Spezi worked nonstop for a month, filing fifty-seven articles. The excellent contacts he had developed among the police and the Carabinieri ensured he had the breaking news first. The circulation of La Nazione skyrocketed to the highest point in its history. Spezi wrote about one suspect, a priest, who frequented prostitutes for the thrill of shaving their pubic hair. He wrote about a psychic who spent a night in the cemetery where a victim was buried, sending and receiving messages from the dead. Spezi’s articles became famous for their dry turns of phrase and that one wicked little detail that remained with readers long after their morning espresso. Florentines have a flair for conspiracy thinking, and the citizenry indulged in wild speculation. Spezi’s articles were a counterpoint to the hysteria: understated and ironic in tone, they crushed one rumor after another and gently pointed the reader back to the actual evidence.

Late that November, Spezi received a journalistic prize for work he had done unrelated to the case. He was invited to Urbino to accept the prize, a kilo of the finest white Umbrian truffles. His editor allowed him to go only after he promised to file a story from Urbino. Not having anything new to write about, Spezi recounted the histories of some of the famous serial killers of the past, from Jack the Ripper to the Monster of Düsseldorf. He concluded by saying that Florence now had its very own serial killer—and there, amid the perfume of truffles, he gave the killer a name: “il Mostro di Firenze,” the Monster of Florence.

The austere savagery of the crimes preyed heavily on Spezi’s mind. He began to have nightmares and was fearful for his young and beautiful Flemish wife, Myriam, and for their baby daughter, Eleonora. The Spezis lived in a converted monastery on a hill high above the city, in the very heart of the Monster’s territory. What frightened Mario most of all, I think, was that coming in contact with such barbarity had forced him to confront the existence of a kernel of absolute evil within us all. The Monster, he once told me, was more like us than we might care to admit—it was a matter of degree, not kind.

Myriam urged her husband to seek help, and finally he agreed. Instead of going to a psychiatrist, Spezi, a devout Catholic, turned to a monk who ran a small mental-health practice out of his cell in a crumbling eleventh-century Franciscan monastery. Brother Galileo Babbini was short, with Coke-bottle glasses that magnified his piercing black eyes. He was always cold, even in summer, and wore a shabby down coat beneath his brown monk’s habit. He seemed to have stepped out of the Middle Ages, and yet he was a highly trained psychoanalyst with a doctorate from the University of Rome.

Brother Galileo combined psychoanalysis with mystical Christianity to counsel people recovering from devastating trauma. His methods were not gentle, and he was unyielding in his pursuit of truth. He had, Spezi told me, an almost supernatural insight into the dark side of the human soul. Spezi would see him throughout the case; he would confide to me that Brother Galileo had preserved not only his sanity, but also his life.

The next killing took place eight months later, in June 1982, again on a Saturday night with no moon. The same gun was used and the same inexplicable mutilation performed. Twelve days later, an anonymous letter arrived at police headquarters in Florence. Inside was a yellowed clipping from La Nazione about a forgotten 1968 double murder—of a man and a woman who had been having sex in a parked car. Scrawled on the article was a bit of advice: “Take another look at this crime.”

Investigators rifled through their old evidence files and found that, through a bureaucratic oversight, the shells collected in 1968 had not been disposed of. They were Winchester series “H” rounds, and each one bore on the rim the unique signature of the Monster’s gun.

The police were confounded, because the 1968 murders had been solved. It was an open-and-shut case. A married woman, Barbara Locci, had gone to the movies with her lover; afterward, they had parked on a quiet lane to have sex. They were ambushed in the middle of the act and shot to death. The woman’s husband, Stefano Mele, an immigrant from the island of Sardinia, was picked up the following morning; when a paraffin-glove test indicated he had recently fired a handgun, he broke down and confessed to killing his wife and her lover in a fit of jealousy. But Mele could not be the Monster of Florence: he had been in prison at the time of the 1981 killing, and had lived since his release in a halfway house in Verona.

Overnight, every crime journalist in Italy wanted to interview Stefano Mele. The priest who ran the halfway house in Verona was equally determined to keep them away. Spezi arrived with a filmmaker on the pretense of shooting a documentary on the halfway house’s good work. Little by little, after taking generous footage of the priest and conducting a series of fake interviews with inmates, he reached Mele.

His first glimpse was discouraging: the Sardinian walked around in circles, taking tiny, nervous steps. An expressionless smile, frozen on his face, revealed a cemetery of rotten teeth. He mumbled rambling answers to Spezi’s questions, his words defying interpretation. Then, at the end, he said something odd: “They need to figure out where that pistol is,” he said. “Otherwise there will be more murders … They will continue to kill … They will continue.”

Spezi grasped something the police would also learn: Stefano Mele had not been alone that night in 1968. It had not been a spontaneous crime of passion but a delitto di clan,” a clan killing, in which others from Mele’s Sardinian circle had participated. Investigators theorized that one of the killers had enjoyed the experience so much that he had gone on to become the Monster of Florence—using the same gun.

This stage of the investigation became known as the “Pista Sarda,” the Sardinian Connection. It focused on three Sardinian brothers: Francesco, Salvatore, and Giovanni Vinci. All three had been lovers in turn of the woman murdered in 1968, and one or more had been present at her killing.

The police first arrested Francesco.

In September 1983, with Francesco Vinci in jail, the Monster struck again. This was the killing that took place in the olive grove beyond our front door. A German couple had parked their Volkswagen camper in the grove for the night. It was only after killing the two lovers that the Monster realized he had made a mistake: both were men, one of whom had long blond hair. Instead of performing his usual mutilation, the Monster tore up a homosexual magazine he found in the camper and scattered the pieces outside.

The authorities refused to release Francesco Vinci. They believed one of his relatives had tried to throw them off by committing a new murder using the same gun—or, at the very least, that Francesco knew who the Monster was. Investigators became suspicious of another member of the clan, Antonio Vinci, and arrested him on firearms charges. They grilled the two men relentlessly, but were unable to break them, and finally were forced to release Antonio. Francesco remained in custody.

Four months later the police electrified Florence with an announcement, and once again Spezi had the scoop. La Nazione carried the banner headline: I Mostri Sono Due”—“There Are Two Monsters.” Two other members of the Sardinian group—both suspected of having been present at the 1968 clan killing—were arrested and charged with being the Monster of Florence. Francesco Vinci was released.

All winter the police worked on the two men, desperately trying to extract confessions and develop their case—with no success. Summer arrived, and tensions rose in Florence, even though suspects were in prison. Then, in July, the Monster struck again. Again he left the empty shells, which had become, perhaps intentionally, his calling card. He mutilated the woman and, adding a new horror, amputated and carried away her left breast.

This killing, which had occurred outside Vicchio, the birthplace of Giotto, triggered a nationwide outcry and generated headlines across Europe. Six times the Monster had attacked, killing twelve people, while the police had arrested and then been forced to release a steady stream of suspects. A special strike team was formed: the Squadra anti-Mostro, composed of both Polizia and Carabinieri. (Italy has two police forces that investigate crime, the civilian Polizia and a branch of the military known as the Carabinieri; they operate independently, and often antagonistically, especially in high-profile cases.) The government offered a reward of roughly $290,000 for information leading to the capture of the Monster, the highest bounty in Italian history. Warning posters went up, and millions of postcards were distributed to tourists entering Florence, advising them not to go into the hills at night.

For Mario Spezi, the case had become a career. His colleagues at La Nazione affectionately referred to him as the paper’s “Monstrologer.” He wrote a highly regarded book about the case that was made into two films. He often appeared on television, and his soft voice and highly developed sense of irony were not always pleasing to investigators, especially those with whom he disagreed. Spezi had a perverse passion for needling people in positions of power, and he developed a second career as a caricaturist for La Nazione, which regularly printed his outrageously funny cartoons of politicians, officials, and judges in the news.

At the same time, he continued to see Brother Galileo, who helped him make peace with the physical horror of the murder scenes and the metaphysical evil behind them. Galileo spent a great deal of time probing Spezi’s nightmares and his childhood, forcing him to confront his own inner demons.

In the summer of 1985 the Monster resurfaced in what would be the most terrible killing of all. The victims were two young French tourists who had pitched a tent in a field on the edge of a wood, not far from the villa where Machiavelli wrote The Prince. According to the reconstruction of the crime, the killer approached the tent and, with the tip of a knife, made a twelve-inch cut in the fly. The campers heard the noise and unzipped the front flap to investigate. The killer was waiting for them and opened fire, hitting the woman in the face and the man in the wrist. The woman died instantly, but the man, an amateur sprinter, dashed out of the tent and fled toward the trees. The killer raced after him, intercepted him in the woods, and cut his throat, almost decapitating him. The young man’s blood stained the tree branches above to a height of ten feet. The killer returned to his female victim to perform the usual ritual mutilation—and again, he carved out and carried off her left breast.

This killing occurred on either Saturday or Sunday night; the date would become a matter of the utmost importance. The bodies were discovered by a mushroom picker on Monday at 2 p.m. At 5 p.m. the police took a detailed series of photographs, which showed the bodies covered with centimeter- long blowfly larvae.

On Tuesday, one of the prosecutors in the case, Silvia Della Monica, received an envelope in the mail. It had been addressed like a ransom note, with letters cut out of magazines, and inside was the victim’s left nipple. As with everything else, the killer had been careful not to leave fingerprints; he had even avoided sealing the letter with his tongue. The experience shattered Della Monica: she withdrew from the case and, soon after, abandoned her career in law enforcement.

This, so far as we know, was the Monster’s last killing. Over eleven years, fourteen lovers had been shot with the same gun. But the investigation had hardly begun. A judicial storm was mounting that would change its course and perhaps guarantee that the truth would never be known—and the killer never found. There were two key players in the coming storm: the chief prosecutor in the case, Pier Luigi Vigna, and the examining magistrate, Mario Rotella.

Vigna was already a celebrity in Italy when he assumed his role in the Monster case. He had ended a plague of kidnapping for ransom in Tuscany with a simple method: when a person was kidnapped, the state immediately froze the family’s bank accounts. Vigna refused to travel with bodyguards, and he listed his name in the telephone book and on his doorbell, a gesture of defiance that Italians found admirable. The press ate up his pithy quotes and dry witticisms. He dressed like a true Florentine, in smartly cut suits and natty ties, and, in a country where a pretty face means a great deal, he was exceptionally good-looking, with finely cut features, crisp blue eyes, and a knowing smile.

Mario Rotella, the examining magistrate, was from the south of Italy, an immediate cause for suspicion among Tuscans. He sported an old-fashioned mustache, which made him look more like a greengrocer than a judge. And he was a pedant and a bore. He didn’t like to mingle with journalists and, when cornered, answered their questions with unquotable circumlocutions. Under the Italian system, the prosecutor and the examining magistrate work together. But Vigna and Rotella disliked each other and disagreed on the direction the investigation should take.

The two suspects had been in jail when the French tourists were killed, and Vigna wanted to release them. Judge Rotella refused. He remained convinced that one of the clan members was the Monster—and that the others knew it. For a while Rotella prevailed. His focus turned to Salvatore Vinci, who had been involved with Barbara Locci and Stefano Mele in an elaborate sexual threesome, and who appeared to have been the prime shooter in the 1968 killing. Salvatore had been forced to leave Sardinia after his nineteen-year-old wife, Barbarina, was found asphyxiated by gas in their home. The death, in 1961, had officially been determined a suicide—although everyone in town believed it was a murder. Someone had mysteriously rescued their one-year-old son, Antonio, from the gas while leaving the boy’s mother to die. Rotella didn’t have enough evidence to arrest Salvatore Vinci for being the Monster, so he had him arrested instead for the murder of Barbarina. His plan was to convict him for that murder, and leverage it against him to identify the Monster.

The trial was a disaster: witnesses were vague, and evidence had gone stale. Antonio Vinci refused to testify against his father, at whom he glowered silently in court. Salvatore was acquitted, walked out of the courtroom, and vanished, slipping through the hands of the police, apparently forever.

This was the last straw for Vigna. He felt that the Sardinian investigation had led nowhere and brought nothing but humiliation. There was enormous public pressure to make a radical break. Vigna argued that the gun and bullets must have passed out of the hands of the Sardinians before the Monster killings had begun. He demanded that the investigation be started afresh. Rotella refused. He was supported by the Carabinieri, Vigna by the Polizia.

It was an ugly fight, and, as is usual in Italy, it devolved into a personality contest, which Rotella naturally lost. The Sardinian Connection was formally closed, and the suspects—including the men who had participated in the 1968 killing—were officially absolved. The problem was that, if Rotella was right, the investigation could now proceed in every direction except the correct one. Officers in the Carabinieri were so angry at this turn of events that they withdrew the organization from the Squadra anti-Mostro and renounced all involvement in the case.

Vigna reorganized the Squadra anti-Mostro into an all-Polizia force under the leadership of Commissario (Chief Inspector) Ruggero Perugini, later fictionalized as Chief Inspector Rinaldo Pazzi in Thomas Harris’s novel Hannibal. Harris had followed the case while writing the novel, and he had been a guest in Perugini’s home. (The chief inspector was not altogether pleased to see his alter ego gutted and hung from the Palazzo Vecchio by Hannibal Lecter.) Perugini was more dignified than his sweaty and troubled fictional counterpart in the movie version of Hannibal. He spoke with a Roman accent, but his movements and dress, and the elegant way he handled his pipe, made him seem more English than Italian.

The new chief inspector became an instant celebrity when, on a popular news program, he fixed his Ray-Bans on the camera and spoke directly to the Monster in firm but not unsympathetic tones. “People call you a monster, a maniac, a beast,” he said. “But I believe I have come to know and understand you better.” He urged the Monster to give himself up. “We are here to help you,” he said.

Inspector Perugini wiped the slate clean. He started with the axiom that the gun and bullets had somehow passed out of the hands of the Sardinians, and that the Monster was unconnected to the 1968 clan killing. The forensic examination of the crime scenes had been spectacularly incompetent: people came and went, picking up shells, taking pictures, throwing their cigarette butts on the ground. What forensic evidence was collected—a knee print, a bloody rag, a partial fingerprint—was never properly analyzed, and, infuriatingly, some had been allowed to spoil. Perugini viewed this evidence with skepticism; he was smitten by the idea of solving the crime with computers.

He examined tens of thousands of men in Tuscany, punching in various criteria—convictions for sex crimes, propensity for violence, past prison sentences—and winnowed down the results. The search eventually fingered a sixty-nine-year-old Tuscan farmer named Pietro Pacciani, an alcoholic brute of a man with thick arms and a short, blunt body who had been convicted of sexually assaulting his daughters. His prison sentence coincided with the gap in killings between 1974 and 1981. And he was violent: in 1951 he had bashed in the head of a traveling salesman whom he had caught seducing his fiancée, and then raped her next to the dead man’s body.

Inspector Perugini had his suspect; all that remained was to gather evidence. In reviewing Pacciani’s old crimes, Perugini was struck by something: Pacciani had told the police he’d gone crazy when he had seen his fiancée uncover her left breast for her seducer. This statement, he felt, linked Pacciani to the Monster, who had amputated the left breast of two of his victims.

Perugini searched Pacciani’s house and came up with incriminating evidence. Prime among this was a reproduction of Botticelli’s Primavera, the famous painting in the Uffizi Gallery that depicts (in part) a pagan nymph with flowers spilling from her mouth. The picture reminded the inspector of the gold chain lying in the mouth of one of the Monster’s first victims. This clue so captivated Perugini that the cover of the book he would publish about the case showed Botticelli’s nymph vomiting bloody flowers.

Perugini organized a twelve-day search of Pacciani’s property. The police took apart the farmer’s miserable house and plowed up his garden. The haul was pretty disappointing, but on the twelfth day, just as the operation was winding down, Perugini announced with great fanfare that he had found an unfired .22 bullet in the garden. Later, in court, experts said it “might” have been inserted into the infamous Beretta and ejected without being fired—the ballistics report was inconclusive. In Pacciani’s garage, the police found a scrap of torn rag, which was duly cataloged. Not long afterward, the Carabinieri received a piece of a .22 Beretta wrapped in a torn rag, with an anonymous note saying it had been found under a tree where Pacciani often went. When the two rags were compared, they matched up.

Pacciani was arrested on January 16, 1993, and charged with being the Monster of Florence. The public, by and large, approved of his arrest. Spezi, however, remained unconvinced. He felt that a drunken, semiliterate peasant given to fits of rage could not possibly have committed the meticulous crimes he had seen. Spezi continued to feel that the Sardinian investigation had been prematurely closed. He laid out his views in a series of carefully reasoned articles, but few readers were persuaded: Pacciani’s trial was being broadcast almost every night on television, and the drama of the proceedings overwhelmed all logic. Florentines have never forgotten the sight of Pacciani’s violated daughters (one of whom had entered a convent), weeping on the witness stand as they described being raped by their father.

This was melodrama worthy of Puccini. Pacciani rocked and sobbed during the proceedings, sometimes crying out in his Tuscan dialect, “I am a sweet little lamb! … I am here like Christ on the cross!” At other times he erupted, face on fire, spittle flying from his lips. Thomas Harris attended the trial, taking notes in longhand on yellow legal pads. The prosecutors presented no murder weapon and no reliable eyewitnesses. Even Pacciani’s wife and daughters, who hated him, said he couldn’t have been the Monster—he was home drunk most of the time, yelling, hitting them, and acting the bully.

Pacciani was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. During the mandatory appeal, the prosecutor assigned to handle the case did something almost unheard of: he refused to prosecute. He became Pacciani’s unlikely advocate, decrying in court the lack of evidence and comparing the police investigation to the work of Inspector Clouseau. On February 13, 1996, Pacciani was acquitted. A higher court sent the case back to be retried, but Pacciani died in February 1998, before the new trial could begin.

On the very day of Pacciani’s acquittal, the police brought forward new witnesses and dramatically announced that they had a confession in hand, in an attempt to salvage their case. The judge refused to allow them to testify, and excoriated the police for the last-minute maneuver. But the investigation was far from over, and eventually their story would emerge. The first surprise witness had actually confessed to being Pacciani’s accomplice. He said that he and Pacciani had been hired by a wealthy Florentine doctor to “handle a few little jobs.” These “little jobs,” investigators later said, were to collect female body parts for Black Masses, to be used as offerings to the devil. The man made many odd claims and contradicted himself continually. He implicated a third man, and the two men were convicted, in a subsequent trial, of murder; one was sentenced to life in prison and the other to twenty-six years.

Thus began the investigation that remains open to this day: the search for the Florentine doctor and the other mandanti (masterminds) behind the killings. Inconveniently, the police’s self-inculpating witness said he didn’t know the doctor’s name—he claimed that only Pacciani did. But Pacciani denied the whole story to his dying day.

With the death of Pacciani and the conviction of his accomplices, the investigation receded into the shadows. Most people felt the case had been solved, and Florence moved on. And perhaps it was just as well. For over time, thread by thread, the web of evidence began to unravel. The rag and gun pieces were found to have been a manufactured clue, although by whom was not established. The expert who had been asked to certify that the bullet found in Pacciani’s garden might have been inserted into the Monster’s gun complained of pressure put on him. On assignment from a television station, Spezi videotaped a police officer, present at the search of Pacciani’s property, saying it was his impression that the chief inspector had planted the bullet. The television station refused to air the segment; Spezi published the allegation—and was promptly sued for libel. (He won the case, but not without further antagonizing the Squadra anti-Mostro and its boss.)

Spezi was by now exhausted—by the case, which he had covered for more than fifteen years, and by the grueling life of a crime correspondent. Brother Galileo had urged him to quit his job. Spezi’s daughter was growing up, and he was feeling the pinch of his journalist’s salary. When his wife’s cousin offered him a lucrative partnership in his luggage business, he jumped. La Nazione agreed to keep him on a freelance contract. It would leave him time to fulfill a longtime dream of writing mystery novels, and to embark on his own counter-investigation, which became a hobby of sorts.

Around this time, Spezi received crucial help from a high-ranking official in the Carabinieri whose identity he has never revealed, not even to me. This man was part of a group of officers who had continued a secret investigation into the killings after the Carabinieri officially withdrew from the case. His clandestine group had identified a possible suspect as the Monster, a man who had previously been arrested and released.

One of Spezi’s big scoops had been the discovery of a report prepared for Inspector Perugini by the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit in Quantico, Virginia. It had been commissioned in secret and then suppressed, because it didn’t describe Pacciani. The report cataloged the killer’s likely characteristics, explained his probable motive, and speculated as to how and why he killed, how he chose his targets, what he did with the body parts he collected, and much more. Its conclusion was that the Monster was of a type well known to the FBI: a lone, sexually impotent male with a pathological hatred of women, who satisfied his libidinous cravings through killing.

The FBI report said that the Monster chose the places for his crimes, not the victims, and that he would kill only in familiar locations. The murders had been committed in some of the most beautiful landscapes in the world, over a large area encompassing the hills south, east, and north of Florence. The police had stared at pins in maps for years, never finding a pattern. But when Spezi mapped the life and movements of the Carabinieri’s suspect to the locations of the killings, he found surprising overlaps.

After that first meeting at Caffè Ricchi, Mario Spezi and I became friends. He often talked about the case, and I began to share his frustration at its unsatisfying conclusion. I cannot remember exactly when my curiosity became more than idle speculation, but by the spring of 2001, Spezi and I had agreed to write something together—a collaboration that would eventually take the form of a book. But first, I needed a crash course from the “Monstrologer.”

A couple of days a week I would shove my laptop into a backpack and bicycle the six miles from our home to Spezi’s. The last kilometer was a bear, almost straight uphill through groves of knotted olive trees. I would find him in the dining room, thick with smoke, with papers and photographs scattered about the table. Myriam, Spezi’s wife, would check in on us every now and then and bring us cups of espresso or fresh-squeezed orange juice. Spezi was always careful to keep the strongest details—and the crime-scene photographs—well out of her sight.

He went through the entire history chronologically, chain-smoking all the way, from time to time plucking a document or a photograph from the heap by way of illustration. I took notes furiously on my computer, in an almost indecipherable mix of English and Italian (I was still learning the language then). Bello, eh?” he often said when he had finished recounting some particularly egregious example of investigative incompetence.

We visited the crime scenes together and tracked down, where we could, the family members of the victims. We went to Vicchio to visit the mother of one of the female victims. She was living a hollow existence in what had once been an imposing house in the center of town. Her husband had squandered the family fortune on his futile search for the killer and had dropped dead of a heart attack at police headquarters during one of his many visits.

I began to understand, in a small way, the immensity of the evil that Brother Galileo—now dead—had helped Spezi to accept. And yet, despite the darkness of our hunt, my days with Spezi were my happiest in Italy. My wife and I enjoyed many elegant dinners with Mario and Myriam on their terrace overlooking the hills, where they gathered writers, photographers, countesses—even, one night, a woman who was half Apache, half Florentine. Spezi had a seemingly inexhaustible store of outrageous tales, which he recounted with the quiet delight of an epicure serving a mossy bottle of Château Pétrus. As he told a story, he often imitated the players, speaking in flawless dialect. Sometimes he would require each guest to bring a story to dinner, in lieu of flowers or wine.

Spezi’s view of the case was not complicated. He had nothing but contempt for the conspiracy theories and heated speculation about satanic sects. The simplest and most obvious explanation, to his mind, was most likely the correct one. He had always believed—and I came to share his conviction—that the Monster of Florence was a lone psychopath, and that the key to finding him was the gun used in the 1968 clan killing. Every cop, Spezi often told me, knows that a gun used in a homicide—especially a clan killing—is never disposed of casually. It is either destroyed or kept in a safe place. One of the killers had taken the gun home.

Spezi believed that the Monster must either be Salvatore Vinci, the man Rotella had had his eye on, or someone close to him—someone with access to the gun and the box of bullets. It was that simple. He turned to the crime-scene evidence. It suggested that the Monster was a tall, right-handed man in excellent physical condition who acted with almost preternatural sangfroid (ruling out Pacciani, who was short, fat, old, and usually drunk). The killer was an expert shot and skilled with a knife.

When we had chased down every other person we could find with some connection to the crimes, I pressed Spezi on the subject of the Carabinieri’s suspect, who he told me was the son of one of the original Sardinians. He was still alive and living in Florence. (I will not mention his name, since the evidence against him remains circumstantial.) The stumbling block was Myriam, who had begged her husband not to approach him. Alone, Spezi had heeded her pleas, but there were two of us now, and I goaded him on. Without telling Myriam, Spezi and I began to plan our visit. We developed a cover story—that I was an American journalist and Spezi my translator, and we were conducting a series of interviews about the Monster of Florence case. Out of deference to Myriam’s fears, we decided to use false names.

For years, the Sardinian had been living a quiet life in a working-class area west of Florence. We arrived at his apartment building at 9:40 p.m., when we would be most likely to find him home. His neighborhood was neat, even cheerful, with tiny garden plots in front of modest stuccoed apartment buildings. There was a grocery store on the corner, and bicycles were chained to the railings. Across the street, past a row of umbrella pines, lay the skeletons of abandoned textile factories.

Spezi pressed the intercom, and a woman’s voice asked, “Who is it?”

“Marco Tiezzi,” Spezi replied.

We were buzzed in without further questions.

A man greeted us at the door, wearing only a pair of tight shorts. He recognized Spezi immediately: “Ah, Spezi! It’s you!” he said with a smile. “I must’ve misheard the name. I’ve wanted to meet you for the longest time.” He invited us to be seated at a small kitchen table and offered us a glass of Mirto, a Sardinian liqueur. His wife, who had been washing spinach in a sink, silently left the room.

Our host was a strikingly handsome man with a dimpled smile. His curly black hair was lightly peppered with gray, his body tanned and heavily muscled. He projected a cocky air of working-class charm. While we talked about the case, he casually rippled the muscles of his upper arms or slid his hands over them in what seemed an unconscious gesture of self-admiration. He spoke in a husky and compelling voice that reminded me of Robert De Niro’s.

Spezi casually slipped his tape recorder out of his pocket and laid it on the table. “May I?”

The man flexed and smiled. “No,” he said. “I’m jealous of my voice.”

Spezi took notes in longhand, slowly working his way from generic questions toward his real objective. (The quoted passages below are from his notes.)

“Your father had strange sexual habits,” Spezi said. “Perhaps that was a reason you hated him?”

“Back then I knew nothing about it. Only later did I hear about his … tics.”

“But you and he had some really big fights. Even when you were young. In the spring of 1974, for example, you were charged with breaking and entering and theft.”

“That’s not correct. Since he didn’t know if I had taken anything, I was charged only with violation of domicile. Another time we had a big fight, and I pinned him, putting my scuba knife to his throat, but he broke free and I locked myself in the bathroom.”

“When did you leave Florence?”

“In the beginning of 1975. First I went to Sardinia, and then to Lake Como.”

“Then you returned and got married.”

“Right. I married a childhood sweetheart, but it didn’t work. We married in 1982 and separated in 1985.”

“What didn’t work?”

“She couldn’t have children.”

Spezi did not mention he had learned that the marriage had been annulled for non-consummation. “Can I ask you a rather direct question?” he said.

“Sure. I may not answer it.”

“If your father owned the .22 Beretta, you were the person in the best position to take it. Perhaps during the breaking and entering in the spring of 1974.”

He didn’t answer immediately. “I have proof I didn’t take it,” he said at last.

“Which is?”

“If I had taken it, I would have fired it into my father’s forehead.”

Spezi pressed on. He pointed out that our host had been away from Florence from 1975 to 1980, when there were no Monster killings. When he returned, they began again.

The Sardinian leaned back in his seat, and his smile broadened. “Those years were the best of my life,” he said, “up there at Lake Como. I had a house, I ate well, and all those girls …” He whistled and made a vulgar Italian gesture.

“And so,” Spezi said, “you’re not … the Monster of Florence?”

There was only a brief hesitation. The Sardinian never ceased smiling, not even for an instant. “No,” he said. “I like my pussy whole.”

We rose to go. Our host followed us to the door. Just before opening it, he leaned toward Spezi and spoke in a low and casual voice. “Ah, Spezi, I was forgetting something.” He leaned even closer and smiled. His voice took on a hoarse, gravelly tone. “Listen carefully: I never joke around.”

Spezi and I agreed that we would publish our book first in Italian, and then I would rewrite it and publish it in English. The publisher of my murder mysteries in Italy, Sonzogno, a division of the Italian publishing house RCS Libri, gave us a contract and an advance. The book, which was titled Dolci Colline di Sangue (Sweet Hills of Blood, a play on the phrase Dolci colline di Firenze), was scheduled for publication in April 2006.

Meanwhile, the search for the hidden masterminds began to intensify. Time had passed, and the old investigators had retired or been promoted. Vigna was appointed head of Italy’s anti-Mafia unit, while Perugini went on to become the liaison officer with the American FBI. A new investigator rose to the fore: Chief Inspector Michele Giuttari, who had organized and headed an elite police unit known as GIDES (Investigative Group for Serial Crimes), heir to Perugini’s Squadra anti-Mostro. The newspapers dubbed him “il Superpoliziotto,” because he was, in practice, answerable to nobody.

In the summer of 2001, the case once again hit the front pages in Italy. GIDES had focused its attention on a villa in Chianti where Pietro Pacciani had worked as a gardener. This villa, which the papers dubbed the “Villa of Horrors,” was suspected of being the meeting place for the cult of devil worshippers who had supposedly hired Pacciani to do their bidding. One important clue that a satanic sect was behind the killings was a rough, hexagonal stone in the form of a broken pyramid found at the site of one of the crimes. Only Giuttari realized its significance. “I hypothesized that it was an object connected to the occult,” he would later explain in one of his many books on the case, “and that, for some reason, it had been left there deliberately.”

Spezi ridiculed this conclusion in the media and produced a similar stone, which a friend had given him. He pointed out that it was not an esoteric object at all, but a type of doorstop commonly found in old Tuscan farmhouses. On May 14, he appeared on a popular TV show with an explosive allegation: he had shown the photographs of the murdered French tourists to one of Europe’s leading forensic entomologists, and the entomologist had concluded, by examining the larvae on the corpses, that the lovers could not have been killed any later than Saturday night.

This determination, if true, was fatal to the satanic-sect theory: Pacciani’s supposed accomplice swore the French tourists were killed on Sunday night. If the crime had occurred Saturday, all his claims would be thrown into question. What’s more, Pacciani had an ironclad alibi for Saturday night.

Much to Spezi’s dismay, Giuttari dismissed the entomologist’s findings and pressed ahead with his investigation. Spezi’s appearance on television had another effect entirely from that intended: it seemed to have inspired the chief inspector’s undying hatred.

In June 2004, I moved back to the States with my family, into a house we had built on the coast of Maine. When I left Italy, Mario gave me a pencil drawing he’d made of Pacciani during the trial and a caricature of myself, spying on my wife through a keyhole. I hung both on the wall of my writing shack, in the woods behind our house, along with a photograph of Spezi in his fedora and trench coat, standing in a butcher’s shop under a rack of hog jowls.

Spezi and I spoke frequently. I missed my life in Italy—but Maine was quiet, and quiet is what a writer needs. We continued to work on the book by e-mail and telephone. Spezi did most of the actual writing, while I made suggestions and contributed a few chapters, which he had to rewrite (I write in Italian at about a fifth-grade level). He continued to keep me abreast of the “Pista Satanica,” which, curiously, seemed to be heating up.

That summer, Spezi called me with a strange bit of news. An old friend of his, a pharmacist, was being investigated for the death of Francesco Narducci, a gastro‑enterologist whose body had been found floating in Lake Trasimeno some twenty years earlier. The original investigators had considered it a suicide—Narducci had been heavily into drugs and was known to be depressed—but GIDES suspected that the doctor may in fact have been murdered by the Monster’s satanic sect. This brought into the investigation the public prosecutor who has jurisdiction over Lake Trasimeno: the pubblico ministero of Perugia, Giuliano Mignini.

On November 18, 2004, at 6 a.m., Spezi and his family were awoken by the sound of their door buzzer. Polizia!” screamed a voice. Perquisizione!” The police were from GIDES, Giuttari’s squad. Their warrant gave two reasons for the search: Spezi had “materially damaged the investigation by casting doubt on the accusations through use of the medium of television,” and he had “evidenced a peculiar and suspicious interest in … the investigation.” He was served with an avviso di garanzia, one step short of a formal indictment. It listed seventeen crimes for which Spezi was being investigated, all undisclosed.

For seven hours the police searched the apartment, while Spezi, Myriam, and their daughter looked on. Officers pulled books off the shelves and rummaged through photos, letters, and schoolbooks, scattering things on the floor. They took everything Spezi had that related to the case: his computer, disks, archives, clippings, interviews, even our notes and drafts of the book. They found Spezi’s old doorstop, which a document would later describe as having been “secreted behind a door.” To Giuttari, this became one of the most important fruits of the search.

Twelve months later, Spezi opened the newspaper and read a headline about himself: “Narducci Murder: Journalist Investigated.”

“When I read that,” Spezi told me, “it was like a hallucination. I felt I was inside a film of Kafka’s Trial, remade by Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin.” Spezi had gone from journalist to suspect.

It was in this climate that I arrived in Florence on February 14 of this year. The kids were on winter vacation, and plane tickets were cheap. I was anxious to see my old friend. Our book would be published in two months, and Spezi hoped we might do some preliminary publicity and line up an evening presentation at Seeber, one of the best bookstores in Florence.

I visited Spezi on February 15. He told me he had recently heard from a source that during the Monster killings and afterward, a group of Sardinians had frequented a run-down outbuilding on the thousand-acre estate of a grand villa outside Florence. The source claimed to have a friend who had been at the building a few months earlier, with the Carabinieri’s suspect (the man I’ve been calling “the Sardinian”). He had seen six locked iron boxes and two guns: a machine pistol and a .22 Beretta.

“What are those boxes?” the friend had asked.

“That’s my stuff,” the Sardinian allegedly said, slapping his chest.

Six locked iron boxes. Six female victims. A .22 Beretta. It was almost too perfect to be true.

I asked Spezi what he planned to do. He said he had been agonizing about this. He smelled a scoop—the scoop of a lifetime. He had driven past the villa a couple of times, but in the end he had decided that he had no choice but to call the police.

I had never seen Mario so excited. “This could be it,” he told me. “The culmination of all my years on this case. And you’ll be here to see it.” He said the villa was open to the public for sales of wine and olive oil, and that it was rented out for parties.

I asked if I could see it. “Sure,” he said. “Why not?” We couldn’t go to the outbuilding, but we could at least see the part open to the public.

We decided to go the next day, accompanied by a friend of Spezi’s who owned a security firm in Florence and from his days as a cop knew the source, an ex-con. Driving over to his friend’s office, Spezi apologized for the state of his car: a few days earlier someone had wrecked the door and stolen his radio.

It was raining when we arrived at the villa. A woman leaned out a window and said the salesroom was closed for lunch. We took a desultory stroll along the drive and returned to the car. We had been there about ten minutes. It was a disappointing visit, at least to me; something about the whole story didn’t feel quite right.

Two days later, Spezi called me on my cell phone. “We did it,” he said. “We did it all.” He didn’t go into details, but I knew what he meant: he had given the information to the police. He also said, before I could ask too many questions, “The telephone is bad.” For two years he had been complaining that the police were tapping his phones.

On February 22, as I was heading out for a morning coffee, my cell phone rang. A man speaking Italian informed me that he was a police detective and that he needed to see me—immediately. No, it wasn’t a joke. And no, he couldn’t tell me what it was about, only that it was obbligatorio.”

I chose the most public place possible, the Piazza della Signoria. Two plainclothes detectives from GIDES took me into the Palazzo Vecchio, where, in the magnificent Renaissance courtyard, surrounded by Vasari’s frescoes, I was presented with a legal summons to appear before Judge Mignini. The detective politely explained that a no-show would be a serious crime; it would put him in the regrettable position of having to come and get me.

I asked, “Is this about the Monster of Florence case?”

Bravo,” said the detective.

The next day, I was ushered into a pleasant office in the Procura della Repubblica, just outside the ancient city walls of Perugia. Present were one of the detectives from the previous day, a small and very tense captain of police with orange hair, a stenographer, and Giuliano Mignini, sitting behind a desk. I had dressed smartly—Italians judge harshly in such matters—and I had a folded copy of the International Herald Tribune under my arm as a prop.

Mignini was a small man of indeterminate middle age, well groomed, with a fleshy face and thinning hair. His voice was calm and pleasant and he addressed me with elaborate courtesy, bestowing the honorific of dottore, which, in Italy, denotes the highest respect. He explained that I had the right to an interpreter, but finding one might take many hours, during which time I would be unpleasantly detained. In his opinion, I spoke Italian fluently. I asked if I needed a lawyer, and he said that, although it was of course my right, it wasn’t necessary; he merely wanted to ask a few questions of a routine nature.

His questions were gentle, posed almost apologetically. The stenographer typed the questions, and my answers, into her computer. Sometimes Mignini rephrased my answers in better Italian, checking solicitously to see if that was what I had meant to say. He asked me about Spezi’s lawyer, Alessandro Traversi, and wanted to know what I could say about Spezi’s legal strategy. He named many names and asked if Spezi had ever mentioned them. Most were unfamiliar. The questions went on like this for an hour, and I was starting to feel reassured. I even had a glimmer of hope that I might get out in time to join my wife and children for lunch at a nearby restaurant, which came highly recommended in the guidebooks.

At this point the conversation turned to our visit to the villa. Why did we go? What did we do there? Where exactly did we walk? Was there talk of a gun? Of iron boxes? Was my back ever to Spezi? Did we see anyone there? Who? What was said?

I answered truthfully, trying to suppress a damnable habit of over-explanation, but I could see that Mignini was not happy. He repeated the same questions, in different forms. It began to dawn on me that the previous line of inquiry had been nothing more than a few balls lobbed in the bullpen. Now, the game had begun.

Mignini’s face flushed as his frustration mounted. He frequently instructed the stenographer to read back my earlier answers. “You said that, and now you say this. Which is true, Dottor Preston? Which is true?

I began to stumble over my words (as I’ve noted, I am not fluent in Italian, especially legal and criminological terms). With a growing sense of dismay, I could hear from my own stammering, hesitant voice that I was sounding like a liar.

“Listen to this,” Mignini said. He nodded to the stenographer, who pressed a button on her computer. There was the ringing of a phone, and then my voice:

Pronto.”

Ciao, sono Mario.”

Spezi and I chatted for a moment while I listened in amazement to my own voice, clearer on the intercept than in the original call on my lousy cell phone. Mignini played it once, then again. He stopped at the point where Spezi said, “We did it all,” and fixed his eyes on me: “What exactly did you do, Dottor Preston?”

I explained that Spezi was referring to his decision to report to the police what he had heard about possible evidence hidden at the villa.

“No, Dottor Preston.” He played the recording again and again, asking repeatedly, “What is this thing you did? What did you do?” He seized on Spezi’s comment that the telephone was bad. What did he mean by that?

I explained that he thought the phone was tapped.

And why, Mignini wanted to know, were we concerned about the phones being tapped if we weren’t engaged in illegal activity?

“Because it isn’t nice to have your phone tapped,” I answered feebly.

“That is not an answer, Dottor Preston.”

He played the recording again, stopping at several words and demanding to know what Spezi or I meant, as if we were speaking in code, a common Mafia ploy. I tried to explain that the conversation meant what it said, but Mignini brushed my explanations aside. His face was flushed with a look of contempt. I knew why: he had expected me to lie, and I had met his expectation. I stammered out a question: Did he think we had committed a crime at the villa?

Mignini straightened up in his chair and, with a note of triumph in his voice, said, Yes.”

“What?”

“You and Spezi either planted, or were planning to plant, false evidence at that villa in an attempt to frame an innocent man for being the Monster of Florence, to derail this investigation, and to deflect suspicion from Spezi. That is what you were doing. This comment—We did it all’—that is what he meant.”

I was floored. I stammered that this was just a theory, but Mignini interrupted me and said, “These are not theories. They are facts!” He insisted I knew perfectly well that Spezi was being investigated for the murder of Narducci, and that I knew more about the murder than I was letting on. “That makes you an accessory. Yes, Dottor Preston,” Mignini insisted, “I can hear it in your voice. I can hear the tone of knowledge, of deep familiarity with these events. Just listen.” His voice rose with restrained exaltation. Listen to yourself!”

And, for maybe the tenth time, he replayed the phone conversation. “Perhaps you have been duped, but I don’t think so. You know! And now, you have one last chance—one last chance—to tell us what you know, or I will charge you with perjury. I don’t care; I will do it, even if the news goes around the world tomorrow.”

I felt sick, and I had the sudden urge to relieve myself. I asked for the way to the bathroom. I returned a few minutes later, having failed to muster much composure. “I’ve told you the truth,” I managed to croak. “What more can I say?”

Mignini waved his hand and was handed a legal tome. He placed it on his desk with the utmost delicacy, opened it, and, in a voice worthy of a funeral oration, began to read the text of the law. I heard that I was now “indagato” (an official suspect under investigation) for the crime of reticence and making false statements. He announced that the investigation would be suspended to allow me to leave Italy, but that it would be reinstated when the investigation of Spezi was concluded.

The secretary printed out a transcript. The two-and-a-half-hour interrogation had been edited down to two pages, which I amended and signed.

“May I keep this?” I asked.

“No. It is under seal.”

Very stiffly, I picked up my International Herald Tribune, folded it under my arm, and turned to leave.

“If you ever decide to talk, Dottor Preston, we are here.”

On rubbery legs I descended to the street, into a wintry drizzle.

I left Italy the next day. When I returned to my home in Maine, which stands on a bluff overlooking the gray Atlantic, and listened to the breakers on the rocks below and the seagulls calling above, I felt tears trickling down my face.

But it was not over—not at all.

After I left, Spezi brought his car to a mechanic to get the broken door and radio fixed. The mechanic emerged holding a few thousand dollars’ worth of electronics: a sophisticated GPS, microphone, and transmitter, which had been carefully attached to the old radio wires. Spezi filed a complaint, and a week or two later, his crappy radio was returned to him by GIDES.

For Spezi, the wrecking of his car was the last straw. He asked his lawyer to file a civil lawsuit against Chief Inspector Michele Giuttari. The suit was dated March 23. Spezi wrote the introductory statement himself, every word perfectly pitched to infuriate his foe:

For more than a year, I have been the victim not just of half-baked police work, but of what could be said to be authentic violations of civil rights. This phenomenon—which pertains not just to me, but to many others—brings to mind the most dysfunctional societies, such as one might expect to find in Asia or Africa.

Spezi proceeded to deliver an uppercut to Giuttari’s soft underbelly—his literary talent. In February, Giuttari had published his second book (there had also been several novels) on the Monster of Florence case, The Monster: Anatomy of an Investigation, in which he had taken several jabs at Spezi and others. In the lawsuit, Spezi quoted extract after extract, savaging Giuttari’s theories, his logic, and his writing ability.

On Friday, April 7, eleven days before the publication of our book, a squad of policemen arrived at Spezi’s apartment, lured him outside under false pretenses, arrested him, and hustled him into a car. He was driven to GIDES headquarters and taken from there to prison in Perugia. The Italian papers reported the charges against him: “calumny,” “disturbing an essential public service,” and “attempting to derail the investigation into the case of the Monster of Florence.” A number of other people were named by the police as being involved in these crimes; I was one of them. The final charge, the papers claimed, was complicity in murder.

The day of the arrest, Mignini asked for and received a special dispensation to invoke a law that is normally used only for terrorists or Mafia dons who pose an imminent threat to the state. For a period of five days Spezi was denied access to his lawyers, kept in a tiny isolation cell under conditions of extreme deprivation, and grilled mercilessly. It was noted in the press that Spezi’s treatment was harsher than that of Bernardo Provenzano, the Mafia “boss of bosses” captured in Sicily a few days later.

Spezi spent three weeks in Capanne, one of Italy’s grimmest prisons. On April 29, a three-judge panel in Perugia surprised everyone by annulling his imprisonment and setting him free. It was a decisive slap in the face for Mignini and Giuttari. A week later, Florence hosted a demonstration for freedom of the press, and Spezi was the guest of honor. That same day our book hit the best-seller lists across Italy.

When Spezi returned home from prison, a crowd of journalists greeted him. “No, I’ll not deal with the Monster affair anymore,” he told one. “I’ll write books, but not about that.” Twenty-five years after that perfect summer Sunday in June when the bodies of two lovers were first found, Mario Spezi had finally declared his emancipation from the Monster of Florence.

Spezi’s legal problems will likely drag on for years. He has been summoned back for another round of interrogation, and fresh charges are reportedly in the works. And yet, the tide may be turning. Mignini’s fellow judges have severely criticized his conduct of the case, and, in early May, Giuttari himself became the target of an investigation, accused of falsifying evidence in the case. And so the investigation grinds on, voracious in its appetite for new victims.

People have often asked me if the Monster of Florence will ever be found. I once believed that Spezi and I could find the truth; now I am not so certain. Any crime novel, to be successful, must contain certain basic elements: there must be a motive; evidence; a trail of clues; and a process of discovery that leads, one way or another, to a conclusion. All novels, even Crime and Punishment, must come to an end.

But life, I have learned, is not so tidy. Here were murders without motive and a trail of clues apparently without end. The process of discovery has led investigators so deeply into a wilderness of falsehood that I doubt they will ever find their way out. Spezi and I used to laugh at their elaborate theories, but ours may not be much better. It wasn’t based on what a good criminal investigation should be: the nitty-gritty of blood, hair, fibers, fingerprints, DNA, and reliable eyewitnesses. In the absence of solid forensic police work—which, in the Monster case, was shockingly deficient—any hypothesis will remain like something dreamed up by Hercule Poirot: a beautiful story in search of a confession. Only this is not a novel, and there won’t be a confession—and without one, the Monster of Florence will never be found.

Douglas Preston has published four nonfiction books and a dozen best-selling mystery novels, including The Relic, Dance of Death, and The Book of the Dead; the novels were co-authored with Lincoln Child. He is currently working on the English version of Dolci Colline di Sangue.
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