'Monster of Florence' is real-life murder mystery

June 11, 2008 9:38:05 AM PDT
This gripping collaboration between a best-selling American author and an Italian journalist is a most unconventional thriller, a real-life murder mystery in which the authors become suspects.

As they attempt to solve notorious serial killings of 16 people between 1968 and 1985, the two men are caught up in a tense, high-stakes battle with prosecutors and police that increasingly appears to be guided only by superstition and ruthless ambition.

Preston's involvement begins in 2000 when he moves his family to the hills above Florence, fulfilling a dream of living in the land of the Renaissance. But he discovers there is a duality to Tuscany. There are slow-paced medieval villages and lustrous meadows, but on moonless nights, the meadows are stalking grounds of a fiend who has caused dread in the hearts of generations of Florentines.

The first half of the book focuses on the historical details of the savage crimes. The dead - seven couples and a pair of German tourists - were found parked in their cars or camped in the Tuscan countryside. Female victims were mutilated, their vaginas and left breasts hacked away.

We meet Spezi, an enterprising Italian crime reporter who questions the disjointed puzzles investigators construct to explain the appalling slayings. He becomes obsessed with the case, researching the most convincing explanation to prove the identity of the killer.

After a spate of bureaucratic screw-ups and investigative fits and starts, Italian authorities finally link three men to the gruesome murders, including Pietro Pacciani - a farmhand dubbed the "Monster of Florence" by local media.

In a 1994 televised trial that gripped Italy, the 69-year-old Pacciani was convicted of 14 murders and sentenced to life in prison. But in February 1996, an appeals court cleared Pacciani and he was ordered to face a retrial. He died in 1998 of what authorities termed natural causes while awaiting a second trial.

After Preston's arrival in the second half of the narrative, authorities reopen the infamous case amid speculation they were investigating up to a dozen wealthy Italians who orchestrated the ritualistic slayings by manipulating a trio of voyeuristic peasants.

A local medium, painted as an unhinged woman who has a treacherous sway over the leading public minister in the case, helps lead authorities to increasingly feverish resolutions. Pretty soon, officials are breathing down the necks of Spezi and Preston, who maintain a lone killer carried out the murders - and they claim they know his identity.

Their theory flatly rejects the occult theories of the authorities, whose high-flying careers are hanging in the balance. Who, if anyone, has the correct version of events? Will the infamous Italian mystery ever be solved?

The fascinating story unfolds with memorable characters and dizzying plot twists that could come off as far-fetched if the book was fictional. The writing is evocative, and the two collaborators skillfully weave the narratives back and forth to create, at times, a razor's edge of tension.