Reprinted from the Summer 2019 issue of the Authors Guild Bulletin
As the new president of the Authors Guild, I’m delighted to introduce the International Issue of the Bulletin. Inspired by the International Authors Forum in April, this issue includes a lineup of pieces related to writing and journalism overseas: a summary of the forum itself, plus articles on the public lending right, on obtaining U.S. visas for foreign authors and a fascinating Q&A with Guild Council member and translator Julia Sanches.
I lived in Italy for four years and received quite an education in how working as a journalist there differs from working in the U.S. That difference was brought home most forcefully when one cool morning in Florence, I exited our apartment in Via Ghibellina to fetch a cappuccino for my wife. My cell phone rang and an officious voice, speaking Italian, asked me if I was Douglas Preston. When I said yes, the voice said: “This is the police. Where are you? We are coming to get you.” Two homicide detectives then presented me with a summons to appear for an interrogation the following day in Perugia, a city 90 miles southeast of Florence.
I had moved to Florence some years before with my family with the idea of writing a murder mystery set in Italy. As part of my research I consulted a journalist named Mario Spezi. Spezi wrote the crime beat for La Nazione, a regional paper. In the course of our interview I learned that Spezi had covered the case of the Monster of Florence, a serial killer who, between 1974 and 1985, murdered 14 young people having sex in parked cars in the Tuscan hills. The Monster was never identified, and the case remains open to this day.
When Mario told me the story of the Monster, I was transfixed. It had to be one of the most horrific, bizarre and psychologically complex stories of crime and (non) punishment I had ever heard. I gave up all thought of the novel I had been considering and suggested we write about the Monster of Florence case instead. I thought it would make an interesting piece for The New Yorker.
Thus began my crash course in Italian journalism. In the U.S., it is contrary to journalistic principles to pay for an interview. In Italy, it is la regola, The Rule. One of the first people Mario and I interviewed was a man named Natalino Mele. As a six-year-old, Mele had witnessed his mother and her boyfriend being shot to death with a gun that, years later, would be used in the Monster killings. Mario arranged the interview with exceptional ease, and we met Natalino in the Cascine Park in Florence. Extremely agitated, he told us that his single memory of the killing was seeing his mother dead in the front seat of the car—and he added the heartbreaking detail that this was the only memory he had of his mother. Then, calming down, he asked for his payment. Mario casually pulled out a roll of cash and peeled off five hundred thousand lire, about $250. I was shocked.
For his part, Mario was astonished when I told him that in America, journalists didn’t pay for interviews—it was considered unethical. Mario considered not paying unethical. “Why would anyone speak to you?” he asked. “Isn’t it wrong to ask for something of value from someone and not pay for it? Can’t you see he needed the money?” The idea that people might speak to a journalist simply because they wanted to tell their story was hard for him to accept. “No Florentine would buy that argument.”
In his many years covering the case, Mario believed he had identified the Monster of Florence, a man named Antonio Vinci who had been peripherally connected to the case. But Mario had never spoken to him because he was afraid of how Vinci might react if accused—and Mario lived with his wife and teenage daughter in the very Florentine hills where the Monster had hunted his victims.
Our editor at The New Yorker, Sharon DeLano, insisted we interview him. She told us that the magazine had journalists in war zones being shot at—and we were afraid to interview a little old serial killer? I recall she used the expression “chickenshit” and reminded us that we worked for The New Yorker, not Good Housekeeping. She demanded we track him down.
“And ask him what?” I wanted to know.
“Ask him if he’s the Monster of Florence, of course!” And with an expletive she hung up the phone.
This was when Mario suggested we use fake names. I protested that this was totally contrary to journalistic ethics in the U.S. Mario pointed out that we were not in the U.S., that in Italy using fake names was a common journalistic practice, and that if I insisted on being a sanctimonious prig I was certainly free to use my real name and even share with the Monster my address and phone number, but that there was no way in hell he was going in there as “Mario Spezi.” I reluctantly agreed, wondering how I was going to explain this to Sharon DeLano.
We knew we would have only one shot at the interview, so to be sure of finding him at home, we showed up unannounced at Vinci’s apartment building at quarter to ten at night. We pressed the intercom. Mario gave his fake name—Marco Tiezzi—and I gave my real one. Vinci answered the door in his boxer shorts, a surprisingly handsome, charismatic man with scars and tattoos—swaggering, self-assured, smiling.
It turned out the fake-name issue was not going to be a problem. Vinci took one look at Mario and said, “Ah, Spezi, it’s you! I didn’t hear the name well.” He leaned forward. “I’ve wanted to meet you for a long time.” He said he had read all of Spezi’s articles on the Monster case with great interest.
Mario turned pale, but I was relieved I wouldn’t have to explain the fake-name business to Sharon. To be honest, I was more afraid of her than the Monster.
Spezi conducted most of the interview, and he was brilliant—calm, nonchalant, the apparently innocuous questions unearthing crucial and frightening information. Finally, we came to the question: Are you the Monster of Florence? During all this, even as it became clear we thought he was the Monster, Vinci never stopped smiling, never raised his voice, never faltered in his remarkable self-assurance. His response to that final question isn’t printable here—you’ll just have to read the book.
My education in Italian journalism, however, was just beginning. Italy has a criminal libel statute, Article 595ff. Diffamazione a mezzo stampa, “Defamation by means of the press.” The U.S. does not have a criminal libel statute, which would probably violate the First Amendment. In the U.S., libel is a civil, not a criminal, matter.
In Italy, the state itself can lodge criminal charges for libel. This statute is used by powerful and well-connected people—judges, politicians, prosecutors and police—against journalists and common citizens. The American student Amanda Knox, for example, falsely accused of murdering her roommate in Perugia, was charged with criminal libel for saying that police interrogators hit her during her interrogation. In America, it is difficult for a public figure to bring a successful charge of libel; in Italy, powerful people are considered to be especially harmed by libel, because of their prominence. As a result, journalists in Italy are often intimidated from investigating those in power and fearful to write about political corruption, police misconduct, abuse of prosecutorial power and false convictions.
Except Mario Spezi. He had a sharp pen and an even sharper tongue, and he relished a good fight. Spezi went on Italy’s most popular television crime show, and with colorful language and a damning presentation of evidence, derided the police investigation in the Monster case. Shortly after that broadcast, the police forced their way into Spezi’s apartment, seized his computer and papers, the drafts of our work, and his archive. He was indicted for 19 crimes, none of them named.
And then the police called me on my cell phone. It turned out they had been tapping our phones for some time. I was interrogated by four detectives and a prosecutor in Italian, with no interpreter. I had no access to an attorney and no Fifth Amendment rights. There is a charming word in Italian, reticenza, or “reticence,” which applies to the crime of refusing to confess. It is a felony. I was indicted for that, along with obstruction of justice, interfering with a police investigation and being an accessory after the fact to murder. It was suggested I leave the country, which I did the next day. Mario was arrested and accused of being the Monster of Florence himself. He was only released after an international uproar, due in large part to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Back in America, when I defended Spezi’s innocence and criticized the police and prosecutor, I was indicted—naturally—for criminal libel.
My education was complete.
My wife never did get the cappuccino I went to fetch that cool morning in Florence, but Mario and I got a pretty good book out of the experience.
This story isn’t meant to discourage American journalists from working in Europe or elsewhere, but more as a warning against naivete. I made the mistake of assuming that because Italy was a civilized, democratic country, things worked there as they do here. I was wrong. The United States, despite its shortcomings, still possesses a freedom of the press greater than almost any other country in the world. It is one of our greatest strengths as a nation, and one we must never take for granted—especially today.