I was first exposed to the Monster of Florence in an interview with Daria Nicolodi published in the 1996 publication "Spaghetti Nightmares." In the interview, Nicolodi (Dario Argento collaborator in producing films as well as Asia Argento) is asked to speak about her native city of Florence and a rash of unsolved murders committed in the surrounding countryside from the mid-Seventies through the mid-Eighties. She reacts to the question with a mixture of enthusiasm for the subject matter (she'd intended to produce a film based on the story) and reluctance to say too much, whether out of fear of the murderer or of the people investigating the murders left rather unclear in this reader's mind.
As a person with an admittedly morbid fascination with complex true crime stories, I was able to come up with only a sparse understanding of the case and a curiosity to learn more. The case of the Monster of Florence has been sparsely covered in the US, but it's something of a national fixation in Italy. The murders of seven couples who were making love in parked cars at the times of their deaths evokes the unsolved crimes of the Zodiac, while the post-mortem mutilations of the female victims brings to mind Jack the Ripper. Until recently, the only English-language summation of the case I had read was the Monster of Florence entry in Crime Library.
2008 has seen the publication of what may become the definitive book on the case in any language--Douglas Preston and Mario Spezzi's "The Monster of Florence." The case has as many unexpected turns as the wildest of gialli, with the kind of political intrigue, far-out speculation, and colorful characters one might expect from a mid-Seventies fictional thriller.
I'd always posited that the fictional representations of Italian police as disorganized and bumbling fell into the same category as the Keystone Kops--exaggerated comedic portrayals with little relation to real-life investigators. Reading the true-life antics of the police at work on the Monster case (to make no mention of the more recent "Foxy Knoxy House of Horrors" case taking place in Perugia) is enough to make me reconsider this stance. In both cases, a fairly straight-forward if sensational crime is blown entirely out of proportion. While Occam's Razor might suggest that the simplest and truest solution to the Monster case is that a lone sexual psychopath with more luck than brains is committing the crimes, the theories in the press that are seriously considered by police, to the point of putting people on trial, center around a Satanic cult run by wealthy men (including an Italian prince) seeking to expand their power and based out of a hilltop chateau. This is to make no mention of the discarded theories of mad gynecologists and demented butchers that were at one time considered relevant. The Italian concept of dietrologia, the story behind the official story, plays a crucial role here--in Italian culture, it's considered vital to keep digging past the point of reason to uncover the true truth, not the simplest and likeliest answer.
The Preston/Spezzi book makes for an excellent read. It's well-structured, telling Spezzi's story first (he is a journalist who has followed the case from its early days) and then picking up with Preston's arrival in Tuscany in 2000. There's a bit too much attention paid to the case's connection to the Thomas Harris film and book "Hannibal" (the frame-by-frame explanation of how a certain building relates to the real-life case is kinda overkill, for example), but when the narrative is centered around the Italy-centric occurences, it snaps along at an admirable pace. As with many an unsolved crime account, the authors put forward their key suspect in the case, which is backed up with some pretty compelling evidence. Unlike any other unsolved crime account I've read, the authors wind up as Persons Of Interest in the case as a result of their persistent investigations.
As a snapshot of real-life Italian police procedure, this book serves as a great companion to the completist giallo fan. "The Monster of Florence" also works as an immersive and fascinating account that belongs in every true crime library.