The Monster of Florence

The Monster of Florence by Douglas Preston with Mario Spezi. Virgin Books, 2008, $32.95.

Six hundred years ago, a little Franciscan friar wrote a book which contained the only phrase for which he is remembered: numquam ponenda est pluralitas sine necessitate. William of Ockham was not really the first to come up with the idea that less could be more, but his is the honour of the Razor that we now interpret as: “All other things being equal, the simplest solution is the best.”

Alas, after six centuries, the logic of Ockham’s Razor has still not reached Italy. This is a country where fascination with the occult and the magnetism of conspiracy theory are so persuasive that even in the most straightforward events, otherwise intelligent people will gravitate towards illogical and at times fantastic conclusions. In private lives, this may be a harmless conceit, providing the grist for many a heated disputation in the piazza or around the dinner table. It is much more serious when those beliefs influence the decision-making processes of the authorities, especially those responsible for administering the law and solving major crimes.

But this is precisely what has been happening over the last forty years in the unsolved case of the serial killings attributed to The Monster of Florence. In 2000, American crime fiction writer Douglas Preston went to Italy to gather material for a new thriller he planned to set in Florence, a murder mystery to be based on a supposed lost masterpiece by Masaccio. We can be grateful that instead he fell in with an obsessive Italian reporter and in turn became obsessed himself with the longest-running, most expensive murder investigation in Italian history. Together they untangled its many threads for us in a real-life thriller that reached its bizarre climax when they found themselves accused of the crimes. The book that Preston and co-author Mario Spezi have produced must rank with the best spine-tingling crime mysteries of fiction; the bonus is the chilling sequel to their investigation which illuminates the dark side of Italy.

Here are the facts. Between 1974 and 1985, fourteen people—seven couples—were shot dead with the same pistol while making love in cars parked on moonless nights in out-of-the-way spots in the hills around Florence. In most cases, the vaginas of the women were cut out and taken away. Sometimes a breast was removed; once, a piece was mailed to the only woman investigator, terrifying her off the case. The only time the murderer goofed was when he shot a German couple in a campervan, not knowing they were homosexuals. No one has confessed; the pistol has never been found; the accused have ranged from Sardinian migrants to a doctor, a pharmacist, a brutish peasant farmer, and finally a journalist.

In a frenzy of fear, Florentine citizens tipped off the authorities to hundreds of potential suspects—notables, friends, professionals of every type, and of course, personal enemies. They clogged the system. Over the years, ten men were arrested as the Monster, an accomplice or the mastermind; all were either released without charge or freed on appeal after conviction. Most are now dead. But the authors believe they know who did it.

Most Italians marry late and live at home with their parents, thus giving rise to two national sports. Couples get their sex in parked cars in dark lanes; voyeurs (indiani) stalk them with sucker microphones and night-vision equipment. The most popular trysting spots are pegged like mineral claims by the professionals who sell, lease or auction the perving rights. So many were involved in this parasitic pastime that the authorities immediately found themselves with more “persons of interest” than they knew what to do with.

Then the confusion began. As every tourist knows, Italy has two main police units—the Carabinieri, a para-military force of great tradition and reasonable professionalism, and the Polizia, an outfit of tough, rather uncouth guys hardened by highway patrols and dealing with the mafia. The latter harbour an elevated inferiority complex and a twitchy envy of the former. When the second double murder was discovered, in 1981, the Carabinieri and the Polizia set up parallel investigations, from different floors of the same building in Florence. The two investigators heading the competing teams could not have been more different in style and personality; competition and conflict were inevitable. The Polizia trampled the crime scenes, duchessed the media, leaked information which increased the terror of the population and promoted their own wild theories. The real detective work by the Carabinieri— the steady but unspectacular pursuit of the ownership of the Beretta .22 pistol, the only real clue to the perpetrator, was debunked. The men of the Arma spat the dummy and left the case to the police.

We were living in Italy in the early 1990s, not fifty miles from the murder scenes, when a boorish semi-literate farmer was arrested as the Monster. I’d known nothing of the serial murders; amongst all the daily crime reports the story caught my eye only because his name, Pacciani, was so like the name of our village. He seemed an unlikely suspect, although forty-two years earlier he had murdered the man who seduced his fiancée. Police claimed they found matching .22 calibre cartridges in his garden; the Carabinieri sneered they’d been planted. Pietro Pacciani was tried, convicted, then freed on appeal. Thomas Harris sat through the trial and used some of the gruesome evidence in Hannibal, his sequel to The Silence of the Lambs.

Under increasing public and political pressure, the police began to weave a tapestry of fantasy from gossamer threads of rumour, conjecture, coincidence, false testimony and most unnervingly, belief in the rantings of a crank blogger who had claimed the Rosicrucians were behind the 9/11 attacks. Finally, they heaped all this together with the last resort of Italian criminal investigators—a conspiracy theory involving the occult.

In real life and in real time, Preston and Spezi patiently picked their way through this minefield of false clues, writing articles for the Italian press and American magazines, exposing the chaotic, idiotic direction of the investigation. Then when a tipoff suggested that a young doctor whose body had been found floating in Lake Trasimeno in adjacent Umbria seven years earlier had been involved, the investigating magistrates (prosecutors) of Perugia bought into the case. The search was on, not for the Monster of Florence, but for the mandante, the instigator. The murders were committed to order, they hypothesised, to secure body parts for use in the rites of a satanic cult; the doctor had been at the centre of it and had been killed to prevent him talking. There’s more, much more, even more implausible and confected.

Preston and Spezi distilled their work into a book, Dolce Colline di Sangue, for one of Italy’s leading publishing houses; it was days from release. Suddenly the case veered down a terrifying road. Preston was detained, indicted for perjury and obstruction of justice and warned to leave the country. “Trapped in His Own Thriller” headlined the Boston Globe, his home paper. Spezi was arrested, held incommunicado in solitary confinement for five days in the huge bunker built outside Perugia for the mafia trials; his house was rifled and trashed. The examining magistrate charged him with conspiracy to murder, finally alleging that he was the Monster himself. He spent twenty-three days in prison.

Italian newspaper journalists like to consider themselves essayists. Their reports are circumlocutory, even florid. Their opening paragraphs are usually oblique, never pithy—as if they feel the need to sneak up on the subject. But their papers do give them a lot of space, so once their stories get up steam, readers can be confident they’re not missing much. And a top reporter has the luxury of specialisation. Mario Spezi had been covering the story which was now swirling around him for twenty-five years; not for nothing had his colleagues dubbed him The Mostrologer. So it was his absolute mastery of the history of the case, rather than the skill of his lawyers, which saved him, as he exposed the fraudulence of the investigation underpinning the threadbare prosecution.

So whodunit? Preston and Spezi don’t say, for good legal reasons, but they leave readers little doubt by taking them back to the beginning and tracing the ownership of the Beretta. They also got hold of the profile of the perpetrator, prepared at the request of the Italian police by the famed Behavioral Science Unit of the FBI. Significantly, the FBI pointed out that the Monster was not a unique serial killer—he was “a sexually impotent male with a pathological hatred of women”. The Florence police had discarded the report. It all seemed to click, but when the two daringly interviewed their suspect face to face, they failed to get the confession that would have broken the case.

Along the way, the authors’ swift pen pictures of towns and villages beloved of tourists help to humanise the narrative, which never clogs, despite its complexity. The good index helps. This, and their capture of the Italian character in all its aspects—genial, laconic, devious, excitable, perverse, intimidatory—make this book much more than a thriller. The greatest tribute to their effort came from the head of one of the noble families of Florence, who felt moved to break ranks with traditional reserve. He wrote this for publication about an Italy few foreigners know:

The travesty of justice undergone by Douglas Preston and Mario Spezi is the tip of the iceberg. The Italian judiciary is a branch of the civil service [which] chooses its members, is self-ruling and is accountable to no one: a state within a state! … Political and dishonest judges have an infallible method of silencing or discrediting opponents, political or otherwise. A bogus, secret indictment, the tapping of telephones, the conversations (often doctored) fed to the press who [sic] starts a smear campaign, a spectacular arrest, prolonged preventive detention under the worst possible conditions, third degree interrogations and finally a trial that lasts many years ending in the acquittal of a ruined man … It may be of interest to know that miscarriages of justice in Italy (excluding acquittals with a ruined defendant) amount to four million and a half in fifty years.

There are postscripts I can add to the tale since the book’s publication. The last suspect, a retired pharmacist, accused of being the mastermind behind the last four double murders, ruined by the process described above, was acquitted by a court in Florence in May 2008.

The Florence police chief in charge of the investigation is himself a published crime writer. During the case he wrote his own book: The Monster: Anatomy of an Investigation, justifying his theories. Disgraced by his failure, he has been assigned to the “unattached” list and was convicted of false statements in an unrelated case.

The prosecuting magistrate in Perugia who grilled Preston and imprisoned Spezi has had his wings clipped, awaiting trial on an indictment for abuse of office. Meanwhile, he’s been investigating the murder of a British student, Meredith Kercher, postulating a complex conspiracy involving sex, drugs, violence and rape.

Tom Cruise is to make a film of The Monster of Florence. Perhaps Top Gun will solve the case. More likely, as Preston suspects, it’s a story without end.

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