Saturday, March 21, 2009

The Monster of Florence by Douglas Preston and Mario Spezi

"Tell me about this Monster of Florence."
"You've never heard of him?"
"Isn't the story famous in America?"
"It's completely unknown."
"That surprises me. It almost American story. And your own FBI was involved - that group Thomas Harris made so famous, the Behavioral Science Unit. I saw Thomas Harris at one of the trials, taking notes on a yellow legal pad. They say he based Hannibal Lecter on the Monster of Florence."
Now I was really interested. "Tell me the story."

The Monster of Florence, co-written by Douglas Preston, an American crime writer, and Mario Spezi, an Italian journalist, sounds intriguing from the very first page. And for the first third of the book, it mostly is. The book is written from the first-person perspective of Preston, and in the first part of the book, he focuses on Spezi's experience with the case. Mario Spezi has been researching and writing out the Florentine serial killer since the "first" killing in the 1970s.

The killer had an unusual modus operandi - he would prey upon couples having sex in parked vehicles in the Tuscan countryside. He typically crept up to the window of the car, shot the male to incapacitate (and kill) him and then killed the female. He would then drag his female victims out of the car and mutilate them before leaving the bodies out in the open. The killer would make unusual and calculated cuts on the females. At first he removed their vaginas, and in the later killings, sometimes a breast too. It was speculated that the killer had surgical experience based on the precision of the injuries, as well as a deep-seated hate of the female gender.

Spezi was called to the scene of the first discovered crime in the mid-1970s and became fascinated and horrified by the crime. Later, an earlier killing of the same type was linked to this and the legend of a serial killer stalking Florence was born. The Monster of Florence killed 8 couples during his reign, mostly young unmarried Italian couples living at home who parked on dark country roads for a little privacy on the weekends.

The first third of the book focuses on the killings themselves, the feelings and tensions in Florence during the 10 year reign of the Monster, and Spezi's experiences with the investigations of each killing. As the book moves chronologically into the future however, it loses focus. Rather than remaining a tightly wrapped narrative, Preston starts to incorporate a host of characters, one after another. The four page long "Cast of Characters" at the book's beginning should have warned me that this would happen. The Monster case was the largest and most involved criminal case investigated in Florence up to that time. As more and more investigators, prosecutors and laymen became involved and were introduced by Preston, the book began to plod.

Preston and Spezi devote most of their time in the last half of the book to describing the various trials and generally terrible theories that the Italian criminal justice system can come up with to explain how their arrested suspects could have masterminded or participated in the killings. At the end of the book, when they themselves are accused of obstruction of justice and actually particpating in a coverup of the crimes, it does not give the book the jolt of energy it so desperately needs.

This was a slow read. While I buzzed through the first half of the book in a few days, the second half was painfully dull. The more cockamamie characters Preston and Spezi introduced, the less interested I was in the outcome of the criminal trials.

The Monster of Florence does not have the characteristically tight dramatic writing style of a legal thriller but then neither does it have the necessary excitement of a crime drama. It would be hard to characterize this book as anything other than disappointing.


Nathan said...

Nice use of "cockamamie."

hamilcar barca said...

a pity. generally, Douglas Preston writes excellent stories.