While Americans have always loved Italy for its art, food and history, there’s no better usage for that wealth of culture than as a backdrop in recounting Italy’s most byzantine and enduring mysteries.
Journalist and author Douglas Preston talks to Nuok about his experiences researching for his recent book, The Monster of Florence, and tells us what he discovered on his journey to Italy’s dark side.
1. Douglas Preston, welcome to Nuok! First and foremost, tell us what brought you to Italy and how did you come across the story of The Monster of Florence?
I originally moved to Florence to write a murder mystery set in Florence at the time of the Florentine flood. While I was researching that novel I met the Italian journalist Mario Spezi and learned from him the story of the Monster of Florence. I never did write that novel—the story of the Monster was far more interesting, and of course absolutely true.
2. What intrigued you the most about the story of The Monster of Florence and why did you think it would appeal to US readers?
It is without doubt one of the most extraordinary stories of crime and (non) punishment in all the annals of crime. From the Monster himself to the long and expensive investigation, it is truly a story that defies comprehension. As a novelist, if I had proposed this story to an editor it would have been rejected as utterly impossible. And yet it is absolutely true.
3. How do you think Americans tend to view Italy, and do you think the American view of Italy is consonant with the Italian reality? How did this influence your writing of The Monster of Florence?
I will speak about Florence and Tuscany, because “Italy” as a whole cannot be generalized, as it is a country with an enormous variety of people and customs. The American view of Florence comes straight out of Under the Tuscan Sun and countless other books and articles about fine wine and good food, lovely art and architecture, charm and romance, depicting the Tuscans as a charming, happy, and simple people. It is a picture postcard view, simplistic and largely false. The reality is much more interesting, For one thing, Tuscans are anything but simple; they are some of the most complex, interesting, difficult, and brilliant people I have met anywhere in the world. But Florence has its dark side, a side that Americans rarely see and almost never write about. The Monster case illuminated that dark and complex side of Florence. Our book is not just a book about a serial killer; it is a book about modern Italy.
3a. How do you think Italians tend to view America, and do you think the Italian view of the USA is consonant with the American reality?
In a similar way, Italians have a simplistic and largely one-dimensional view of America. They tend to see America in generalized, monolithic terms, not realizing that, for example, Texans and New Yorkers are as different as, say, Mongolians and Australians. America is a vast, complex, and sprawling place with a huge diversity of people, opinions, and politics. Italians, except very sophisticated Italians, don’t realize the great diversity of this country. They see someone like George Bush, for example, and think he somehow represents all Americans, not understanding that many Americans viewed Bush and his policies as being utterly strange and out of touch with their own political and cultural realities.
4. You mention the concept of dietrologia several times throughout the book. What did you learn about the way Italy works while living there and researching for your book and how did this clash with the way you viewed the country before your arrival?
Having close relatives who lived in Italy for years I knew something about the way Italy works. But the concept of dietrologia was new to me – the idea that the truth is never the obvious thing; that the truth is always deeply hidden behind a false façade of normalcy. This concept is harmless in daily life but can (and does) wreak havoc in Italian criminal investigations, where some investigators reject the obvious truths while searching for a complex conspiracy hidden behind. This is what happened in the Monster of Florence case, one of the main reasons the case has never been satisfactorily solved.
5. In your book, you express some doubts regarding the freedom of the press in Italy, especially when writing about your colleague Mario Spezi’s arrest. How did these doubts come about and was your safety in Italy ever compromised do to your journalistic work?
To be honest, I was shocked at the lack of freedom of press in Italy, owing to the misuse of the penal codes involving diffamazione a mezzo stampa, in which powerful people—magistrates, politicians, businessmen and others—intimidate and threaten journalists with diffamazione a mezzo stampa, stifling a vigorous and independent press. Diffamazione a mezzo stampa is a tool used by the rich and powerful to stifle and suppress any independent inquiry into their dealings.
6. You also express doubts regarding the Italian judicial system and briefly address the Amanda Knox case due to your experience with Prosecutor Giuliano Mignini. Why do you think Prosecutor Mignini is so obsessed with satanic cults and how has this obsession tainted The Monster of Florence case and the Amanda Knox case?
My criticism isn’t of the Italian judicial system; it is of corruption within the Italian judicial system. Our own judicial system here in America has severe problems; look at Guantanamo, for example. My criticism is mostly leveled at pm of Perugia, Giuliano Mignini, and his abusive actions in the Monster of Florence case, for which he was recently convicted and sentenced to sixteen months in prison. The Italian judicial system, in convicting Mignini, worked very well indeed! So it is not the system; it is a single abusive prosecutor who is the problem. Yes, he does appear to be overly interested in with Satanic cults. As Luca Turco, one of the prosecutors in his case, said, Mignini “is a man in pray to a sort of delirium.”
7. Do you think Amanda Knox is guilty of murdering Meredith Kercher? Why or why not?
I believe Amanda Knox is innocent and that the murder was committed by Rudy Guede alone. To explain why would require pages, if not an entire book! Suffice to say, I believe this was a travesty of justice, and I believe she will be freed on appeal. The Italian appeals system often corrects mistakes made by the lower courts.
8. Italians tend to be obsessed about image. Would you consider The Monster of Florence an unflattering portrait of modern and contemporary Italy? Would use Italy as the setting for another novel?
I am afraid it does paint a rather unflattering picture of the conduct of the Polizia and Carabinieri in this case, as well as of overweening and careerist prosecutors. I might point out these problems are not restricted to Italy; here in the U.S. we have similar problems with our police, FBI, and prosecutors. The one problem with the Italian system, in my opinion, is that it is very difficult to remove abusive prosecutors such as Mignini. Even after his conviction for abuse of office, he remains in office performing all his official duties while his case is on appeal! This would never happen in the U.S.
I would certainly use Italy as the setting for another novel. It is an endlessly fascinating country.
9. What do you think the legacy of the Monster of Florence and the Amanda Knox trial say about Italy in 2010?
Miscarriages of justice can occur anywhere in the world at any time. The real measure of a country’s justice system isn’t whether or not it is perfect; no country has a perfect system. The real measure is how the justice system corrects its mistakes. I am waiting to see whether the Italian system will be able to rectify its mistakes in the Knox case during the appeals trial. I am waiting to see if Knox will get a fair appeals trial. Because the original trial was not fair, with the police and prosecutors spinning up bogus evidence and violating Italy’s own laws regarding segreto istruttorio, rules of interrogation, and so forth.