Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Monster of Florence by Douglas Preston with Mario Spezi (unabridged audio book read by Dennis Boutsikaris)

In 2000, author Douglas Preston (best known for his Agent Pendergast thrillers written in collaboration with Lincoln Child), moved his family to Florence, Italy. He intended to write a murder mystery set during the great Florence flood, so he began researching police procedures. This put him in contact with Mario Spezi, a crime reporter for over 20 years. ("'He knows more about the police than the police themselves,' I was told.")

During their first conversation, Preston learned something extraordinary. Right outside his apartment was a local landmark where one of a series of horrific murders took place by The Monster of Florence (locally, "Il Mostro"). It seems that Florence — the birthplace of the Renaissance (which practically created our idea of the modern world), which was funded in large part by the famous Medicis — had its own Jack the Ripper, a serial killer who has yet to be caught.

With this, Preston's pursuit of a fictional book was largely forgotten (though he would use a lot of Italy's atmosphere in the next Pendergast novel, Brimstone), and he focused his efforts on learning all he could about the Monster of Florence. He and Spezi became friends, and they decided to collaborate on a book about the case.

Little did they know how personally it would affect them, especially when Spezi was investigated as a suspect, with Preston accused of being an accessory. (The writer was heavily suggested to leave the country and never return, in essence becoming part of his own story.)

Thus, The Monster of Florence is part crime study, part memoir. The first portion brings the reader up to date and focuses on Spezi and his coverage of the original string of murders during the early to mid-1980s, with the main suspects first coming from a well-known group of local Peeping Toms called Indiani.

Given the nature of the mutilations of the victims, it was suspected (like in the Jack the Ripper case) that the killer was well educated and skilled, perhaps even a surgeon. Spezi, a young reporter, took advantage of the great amount and breadth of material connected with the Monster (he coined the name himself) and produced a wealth of varied and well-received articles that made his reputation as the city's expert on "Monstrology."

A later investigation centers on a doorstop, collected in lieu of any other evidence 20 years before. Other avenues include a possible Satanic sect involving "picnicking friends," and the so-called Sardinian Trail: the search for the owner of a Beretta 9mm used in every crime — including an apparent crime of passion from 1968. Preston and Spezi do not solve the case, but they do lead the reader down the most logical road of possibilities.

The Spezi portion of The Monster of Florence lays out all the facts of the case up to 2000, when Preston came onto the scene. It's a little dry at times, but the information is needed to understand the rest of the book, and it paints Spezi with the necessary "heroic" colors for us to disbelieve his accused guilt later on. The second part focuses on the entry of Preston into the case, their collaboration on their first Monster of Florence book together (an Italian-language edition and the catalyst that brought the government down on their heads), and the aftermath.

It is reported that author Thomas Harris based Hannibal Lecter in part on the Monster. He was seen at several of the trials, taking copious notes, and he set Hannibal in Florence itself, using as its antagonist a fictional member of the famed Pazzi family as a police inspector who solved the Monster case. In fact, there are so many mentions of Hannibal and Harris in The Monster of Florence that I was surprised to discover that they don't share a publisher.

The Monster of Florence illustrates the danger of running afoul of a foreign government when you're barely fluent in the language. It is also an interesting portrait of a seemingly incompetent police force, whose members would rather pursue a line of inquiry involving possible Satanists than search for any plausible evidence.

Audiobook reader Dennis Boutsikaris (whose Russian inflections were highlights of his readings of Tom Rob Smith's novels Child 44 and The Secret Speech) once again uses his skill with accents (this time Italian) to add realism and authenticity to the telling of this horrific tale. (The unabridged audiobook of The Monster of Florence also contains an interview with Douglas Preston.)

1 comment:

Evan Lewis said...

Craig! You've won a "Creative Writer" (aka Bald-Faced Liar) Award. Details here:

Don't blame me! The Devil, I mean Paul Brazill, made me do it.

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