In 2000, writer Douglas Preston moved his family to a villa in Tuscany so he could work on a new mystery that would take place in Florence. Soon after, he discovers that a clearing near his new house was the scene of a gruesome double murder. The murder was attributed to the Monster of Florence, a serial killer who targeted young couples and was still at large. Preston abandons his novel and begins working on a nonfiction work about the Monster, teaming up with Mario Spezi, a Florentine journalist who had been covering the Monster killings since the early 80s.
Throughout the 70s and 80s, the Tuscan countryside was terrorized by Monster killings. He killed only on weekends, targeting couples who had sex in their cars late at night. As the killings progressed, citizens became more and more terrified, and the police were given hundreds of leads. Several men were arrested and charged, and even convicted, only to have their conviction dropped on appeal. To this day, the Monster of Florence has never been found.
The first half of the book covers the killings themselves and is pretty creepy and gruesome. The last killing took place in 1985, and years later a new investigator was assigned to the case. He took it in a new direction, investigating ties to Satanic rituals and ruthlessly charging anyone who got in his way–including Spezi and Preston, who disagreed with his assertions about the case (and if the Satanism and ruthlessness sound familiar, it’s because some of the same investigators later worked on the Amanda Knox/Meredith Kercher case). The second half focuses on the persecution that Preston and Spezi went through as they attempted to write and publish their book, against the wishes of the police.
From a true crime perspective, this book is fascinating. Although the Monster has never been caught, Spezi and Preston have their own theories on his identity–theories that veer sharply away from those of the investigators. Between the experiences they have when they end up on the wrong side of those investigators, and what I know about Amanda Knox, I think being arrested in Tuscany must be nightmarish. One of the accused compares the experience to Kafka’s The Trial.
I first read this book about 6 years ago and loved it. Upon rereading, I struggled with it a little more–there are so many names! And to an American so many of the names sound so very similar! I did have trouble keeping characters straight, but it didn’t detract from the inherent tension I felt when reading this. At one point, Preston is interrogated by police, and even knowing he’s going to make it out okay, I could feel my stomach tensing up into knots. This book is not for the faint of heart.