‘The Monster of Florence’: Murder and the Pursuit of Truth
Travel Books: Douglas Preston's latest book, the true story of a serial killer in Italy, shows that the world is far from exhausted for those who want to travel deep. Frank Bures tells why.
08.07.08 | 10:18 AM ET
In 2000, Douglas Preston and his family moved into a rented Tuscan farmhouse with dreams of happy strolls, old paintings and a languid existence of the kind so often written about by people in love with Italy.
Preston landed, in other words, in a fictitious place: a country that existed in his mind, but not in reality. We all do this when we arrive someplace new. By the time we reach a place, it’s already there in our minds. We have built it partly from what we know, partly from what we imagine and partly from what we hope it will be.
It wasn’t long before reality intruded on Preston’s Italy. He soon discovered that the olive grove near his front yard marked the spot where two young people having sex in their car had been murdered and mutilated by the so-called “Monster of Florence.”
Preston, who writes thrillers, could not resist the pull of the story. He struck up a friendship with Mario Spezi, a journalist who has spent his life trying to solve a series of 16 (and possibly more) murders suspected to have been carried out by the Monster. Together, they collaborated on Preston’s new book, The Monster of Florence, which chronicles their quest to find the killer—and their even more bizarre dealings with the Italian legal system, such as it is. It’s such a fast read that I couldn’t wait to get to the next page.
But I found it interesting for a number of reasons.
I think it’s safe to say we are living through a particularly superficial era where image is everything and much time is spent on the surface of things. In the travel world, I see this in the nation-branding wars, which we’ve chronicled on World Hum. Another place I see it is in the growing chorus of naysayers who claim that travel is finished, the world is exhausted and that there are no new discoveries to be made.
I couldn’t disagree more.
The English philosopher Herbert Spencer once wrote about a Frenchman “who, having been three weeks here, proposed to write a book on England; who, after three months, found that he was not quite ready; and who, after three years, concluded that he knew nothing about it.”
Which is exactly where “The Monster of Florence” comes in handy as a book about Italy. At its core, it’s a breakneck read. But in the margins a more complex country takes shape.
Take the scores of young men and women in their late teens and 20s having sex in cars. I knew this was a result largely of people living at home into their 30s and marrying later, as well as the high cost of real estate. But I didn’t know there was another subculture of “Indiani” who creep around at night peering into those cars, using parabolic microphones and night-vision cameras. I didn’t realize the hills were divided into zones or that “good cars” were traded for money among the Indiani.
Preston also writes about the Italian judiciary, where the author endured Kafkaesque interrogation by judge Giuliano Mignini, who was convinced that the most simple explanations were the most far-fetched, and that there was a vast satanic conspiracy behind the Monster killings. Mignini even tried to implicate Preston, and he is the same judge currently pursing the investigation of American exchange student Amanda Knox in the murder of her British roommate.
Italians’ penchant for conspiracy is also well known, but one of Preston’s Italian friends puts a finer point on it. He says the force driving the Monster investigation is Dietrologia, the study of what is behind (dietro) the facts. “Nothing is simple, nothing is as it seems. Does it look like a suicide? Yes? Then it must be murder. Somebody went out for coffee? Aha! He went out for coffee…But what was he really doing,” he tells Preston.
For Preston, all this was a little deflating. Before he came to Italy, he thought of Italy as a different place. “I imagined Italy as I think many Americans do,” Preston explained in an email. “A magical place of fine food, exquisite landscapes, and warm people—a civilized country, the birthplace of the Renaissance.”
I asked him how all this had transformed that view.
“My feelings are very changed,” Preston wrote. “There are no ‘magical’ places once you get to know them well—human nature is the same everywhere. While Florence is a beautiful city, it can also be squalid, dirty, dark, cold and quite different from the image presented in the tourist brochures.”
But I think he misses his own point. I thought his insights about dietrologia, about the machinations of power, about many things made Italy seem more fascinating, not less. It is what I love most about the world: Where there is sun, there are also shadows. Italy, like every place, is a study in complexity. And in this era of nation branding and travel-is-so-over cranks, it doesn’t hurt to remember that while oceans may have been crossed, there are still worlds underneath waiting to be explored by those who want to dive a little deeper.