Review: The Monster of Florence by Douglas Preston and Mario Spezi

2198274Blurb:

In 2000, Douglas Preston fulfilled a dream to move his family to Italy. Then he discovered that the olive grove in front of their 14th century farmhouse had been the scene of the most infamous double-murders in Italian history, committed by a serial killer known as the Monster of Florence. Preston, intrigued, meets Italian investigative journalist Mario Spezi to learn more. This is the true story of their search for–and identification of–the man they believe committed the crimes, and their chilling interview with him. And then, in a strange twist of fate, Preston and Spezi themselves become targets of the police investigation. Preston has his phone tapped, is interrogated, and told to leave the country. Spezi fares worse: he is thrown into Italy’s grim Capanne prison, accused of being the Monster of Florence himself. Like one of Preston’s thrillers, The Monster Of Florence, tells a remarkable and harrowing story involving murder, mutilation, and suicide-and at the center of it, Preston and Spezi, caught in a bizarre prosecutorial vendetta.

Review:

There are frequently days when the crappiness of the world is too awful to even contemplate and I struggle not to simply fall to the ground, wrap my head in my hands, and give up. But after reading The Monster of Florence, no not anymore, because I have a talisman, a mantra of sorts, to repeat and cling to in these moments of darkness. I have a reminder that even if things are bad, they are not and could never be as uncomprehendingly inefficient, vile, pathetic, medieval, and, yes, even evil, as the Italian justice system. For the rest of my life, if I read an article about the incompetency of an American judge or watch a documentary about the failing criminal system, I can finish and soothe myself, “Well, at least it’s not Italy.”

How lovely it is for others to fail so that we can reassure ourselves that we are not the worst. This nonfiction story traces the beginnings of “Il mostro di Firenze,” the titular Monster of Florence, a serial killer worthy of the fascination for those who “love” (this is far from the right word, but I’m struggling to find better—evidence of an unhealthy fascination that should be discarded despite our undying interest?) serial killers. His trail of corpses spans decades in the picturesque Florentine hills. He kills couples in the midst of sex, shooting them with his infamous Beretta, and then cuts away pieces of the woman’s genitals to keep. His reign of terror was so great that by the end, he only victimized foreigners since every young Italian couple knew not to venture into the hills, no matter how much they wanted to find a secluded place to have sex.

And that’s only the killer. He’s far from the most interesting part of this tale. The plodding and misguided police investigation fingers numerous suspects but apparently never the right one. It becomes a humiliation for the authorities, which is where things proceed to become even more interesting. Scapegoat satanic cults are summoned from nowhere, bodies of innocents-now-presumed-guilty are exhumed years later and claimed to have been “replaced,” false evidence is planted in innocuous gardens, and journalists attempting to solve the case are arrested as accomplices.

The very writers of this book—an American journalist partnered with an Italian—are considered criminals for daring to question the extremely suspect conclusions of Italian prosecutors more eager to close the case than to find the right suspect. At one point a criminal profile of “Il Mostro” is assembled by the greatest team of FBI profilers on the planet only to be hidden away because it did not correspond to the suspect the Italian authorities wanted to convict. The judicial system is so profoundly incompetent that you get verdicts like this,“Acquitted; for the reason that the allegation is nonexistent.” In Italy the authorities can run free and fabricate charges, ruining dozens of lives in the process, all in the name of “justice” which for them is nothing more than saving or building their own reputations.

If you are fascinated by incompetency, you must read this book. If you watched the Amanda Knox case, aghast at the supposed “evidence,” read this book (the prosecutor in her case is also a villain here, coming up with crackpot theories about the Monster and then creating the evidence to support them after the fact.) Unfortunately, it’s not the best written book—Spezi and Preston wrote it half in Italian, half in English and then translated the other half for their respective audiences. It shows: the writing is often clunky, particularly the dialogue which reads like an airport thriller novel.

The Monster of Florence is about ego, not only the ego required to kill but also the ego to decide who is a killer. But it’s also about our egos, our ego as readers of true crime, that same ego that makes us slow down at a roadside accident and wonder, “What happened here?” It is egotistical to assume that we can unmask, that we even deserve to unmask, the identity of an unknown and notorious killer. Is truth feasible when so many people desperate to find it are running around looking for it? It’s folly, and it takes a system as disastrous as Italy’s to show it.

3 stars out of 5

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Review: In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

168642Blurb:

On November 15, 1959, in the small town of Holcomb, Kansas, four members of the Clutter family were savagely murdered by blasts from a shotgun held a few inches from their faces. There was no apparent motive for the crime, and there were almost no clues.

As Truman Capote reconstructs the murder and the investigation that led to the capture, trial, and execution of the killers, he generates both mesmerizing suspense and astonishing empathy. In Cold Blood is a work that transcends its moment, yielding poignant insights into the nature of American violence.

Review:

“I didn’t want to harm the man. I thought he was a very nice gentleman. Soft-spoken. I thought so right up to the moment I cut his throat.”

How can two opposite things both be true? How can someone be a killer but not—never—be worthy of being killed himself? How can the world treat you poorly but in doing so not give you the right to treat it poorly?

The answer to these hows? A set of arbitrary human laws that we have tried to bend around the unarbitrary universe.

Murder, as a subject of debate, doesn’t seem particularly sticky. And yet we have hundreds of thousands of pages of judicial literature devoted to its consequences and hundreds of thousands of pages of fiction and non-fiction literature dedicated to its perpetrators, its victims, its sufferers, and its enforcers. The rule humans have developed for murder is as simple as the one recorded in the Bible a few millennia ago, “Thou shalt not kill,” and yet…we kill. And yet, we struggle to understand why.

The murder here is both as unfathomable and fathomable as they all are. Two greedy men stomped on by the world decide to rob a prosperous Kansas farm family for money. Failing to find a massive safe full of cash, they abandon the enterprise but still decide to brutally murder the four family members.

In Cold Blood is widely considered the exemplary work of the True Crime genre. Never before has a family’s doom been quite so picturesque. It is the most fantastic of murders, more atavistic than the “original” murder of Abel by Cain. The dead family is the family, more good, wholesome, and kind than it should be possible to be. And the killers are the killers, not entirely psychopathic but not entirely rational. They’re straight-up thugs, beat-up and blackhearted, motivated by a special blend of vindictiveness and simple desire.

What makes it even more fantastic is its hyper-realness. Verisimilitude cannot substitute for newspaper clippings, wet pools of blood, and the itch of a real rope around a real man’s neck. This all happened, Capote reminds us with every tragic detail. A family met death while the family in the neighboring farmhouse slept through the night. You can google “Perry Smith” and stare into his drooping eyes, just as the Clutter family might have stared into those eyes, tied up, desperate, wondering but probably more so knowing that they’d be the last thing they’d see. Likewise you can google “Nancy Clutter” and see her brilliantly coiffed hair paired with a genuine smile.

While the Clutters were killed, so were the perpetrators, just later and in a different way. And looking at all their faces—their real faces—it’s easy to forget those human laws and it’s hard to say whom you pity more.

4 stars out of 5

Review: People Who Eat Darkness: The True Story of a Young Woman Who Vanished from the Streets of Tokyo – and the Evil That Swallowed Her Up by Richard Parry

12988314Blurb:

Lucie Blackman—tall, blond, twenty-one years old—stepped out into the vastness of Tokyo in the summer of 2000, and disappeared forever. The following winter, her dismembered remains were found buried in a seaside cave.

Richard Lloyd Parry, an award-winning foreign correspondent, covered Lucie’s disappearance and followed the massive search for her, the long investigation, and the even longer trial. Over ten years, he earned the trust of her family and friends, won unique access to the Japanese detectives and Japan’s convoluted legal system, and delved deep into the mind of the man accused of the crime, Joji Obara, described by the judge as “unprecedented and extremely evil.”

Review:

There is something about a true crime novel that feels so disgustingly exploitative. Someone has suffered a gruesome and unfair death, leaving a horde of shellshocked family and friends behind, and then there is an author and his publisher, recounting the story for profit, and finally there is us, the readers, who feel a wispy nebula of sadness for the individual’s terrible fate, but who mostly feel a curiosity, an excitement to know all the criminal details, the bloodier the better.

Somehow Parry, a British journalist working in Tokyo, avoids sensationalism and tactlessness in People Who Eat Darkness. He simply tells the story of Lucie Blackman, a 21 year old British hostess who goes missing in Japan. If you’ve watched a crime drama or two, you know how this story ends, but Parry manages to make it gripping. He also includes fantastic academic details, such as the anthropology of hostess culture in Tokyo and the dynamics of police work in Japan (my favorite fact: Japanese police emphasize confession over physical evidence, which leads to a huge kerfuffle in the Blackman case, but seems somewhat successful in terms of convictions. Shocking statistics: in the US, 73% of defendants brought to trial are convicted, in Japan, a whopping 99.85%).

But alongside his factual account, Parry delves into the grief of a family living this insane situation. His stellar, sensitive writing never weighs down the story or fogs facts. Rather, it lends much needed humanity to the true crime novel. What most elevates Parry’s account is the fact that he avoids drawing summative conclusions. There is no gotcha moment where we understand the criminal’s damaged psyche, no epiphany that brings meaning to a meaningless tragedy. Parry tells Lucie’s story and ends by saying: this is one of the worst possible things that could happen to a person and to a family; even after following the case for years, I still do not know—I still cannot understand—why this horrible, horrible thing happened.

A fitting ending.

4 out of 5 stars