The Monster of Florence by Douglas Preston and Mario Spezzi (2008-9): ‘The Monster of Florence’ was the name given to an Italian serial killer who murdered at least 16 people in the countryside around Florence in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Spezzi is the veteran Italian journalist who covered the story from its beginning, while popular American suspense novelist Preston got interested in the case after he discovered the villa he’d rented in 2000 was beside one of the Monster’s murder sites and subsequently met with Spezzi to discuss the case. Ultimately, though, this isn’t so much a non-fiction book about a serial killer as it is an indictment of the Italian legal system, from the polizia and carabinieri all the way to the prosecutors and judges operating at the national level.

Much of the pleasure of the book lies in the twists and turns of the real-life events, and so I won’t give too much away. Florence itself becomes a major character, as Preston documents his own learning experience both about the city — the centre of the Renaissance — and about the Italian mindset both regionally and nationally. From the distant viewpoint of North America, it’s easy to view Italy as a homogeneous state, rather than a collection of hundreds of tiny states that weren’t joined as a nation until after Canada’s own Confederation, and which used a wide variety of dialects (500 or more) which still linger in the individual regions. Besides Florence, Sardinia and its history plays a major role in the history of the Monster of Florence.

This is a very sad story in many ways, but the doggedness of Spezzi — and the decency of at least some police officers and bureaucrats — give one a little hope. The epilogue, written especially for the trade paperback edition, casts grave doubt on the rightness of the recent conviction of American student Amanda Knox for the murder of her room-mate. The Monster of Florence reads like a primer on how NOT to do police work: prosecutorial conspiracy theories, misconduct and child-like tantrums abound while a real killer remains unarrested and uncharged to this day. Highly recommended.

The Survivor by James Herbert (1977): A short, tense early horror novel from the writer most likely to be referred to as “England’s answer to Stephen King.” A horrific airplane crash in Eton leaves behind one survivor, the co-pilot, who can’t remember the events leading up to the crash. People start dying. A medium shows up to try to help the co-pilot solve the supernatural mystery of how he survived and what’s happening now. Shenanigans ensue. In the ‘negative’ column, Herbert gives us one of the ten clumsiest passages in literary history in the sub-sub category of ‘Subtly establishing a person’s race or ethnicity.’ It’s seriously hilarious. Recommended.

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