England had Jack the Ripper, the unidentified serial killer born in the bogs of Dickensian London, who slit prostitutes’ throats and mutilated their bodies. Boston had the eponymous strangler, immortalized by the Rolling Stones (Did you hear about the midnight rambler/Everybody got to go/Did you hear about the midnight rambler/The one that shut the kitchen door). And Germany had its Monster of Dusseldorf, who killed wantonly, and apparently inspired Fritz Lang to make the mother of all noirs and his best work, M. And then, many decades later, Italy had the Monster of Florence, immortalized by this book and—most certainly—a film in the near future.

The Monster of Florence: Virgin Books, 426 pages, Rs365.

The facts of the case are prosaic enough. Between 1974 and 1985, seven young couples were murdered while having sex in parked cars in the stunningly beautiful hills surrounding Florence. The case turns into chilling Italian noir when it comes to methods of execution—the killer (or killers) used the same handgun, mutilated the genitalia of the women with a scuba knife and usually shot the men. There was a longish gap between the killings, which investigators attribute to the killer leaving town.

What followed is a blot on the Italian police and justice system, say the authors. Successive investigations by viciously vindictive and effete detectives led to false accusations, suicides, exhumations, graveyard séances, lawsuits, the planting of false evidence and large-scale miscarriage of justice. People were charged with killings and put in the clink before the killer struck again. The “monster" was Florence’s Dark Knight, contributing to a breakdown of social values in one of the world’s greatest cities.

And at the end of the longest manhunt in Italian history, the “monster" has not been found, though the authors offer some tantalizingly interesting leads. It left behind more unanswered questions, unexplained theories (including the involvement of local satanic cults in the murders) and more hapless victims than the 14 people it killed, their reputations tattered and lives destroyed by the investigation. At the end of it all, the way the Italian police worked on the case, with unsecured crime scenes, botched investigations and falsification of evidence, makes our Noida police look like Scotland Yard.

Monster is a surreal tale in many ways, with a sinister killer on the prowl in the birthplace of Italian renaissance. Douglas Preston and Mario Spezi paint a grim and lurid picture of Florence—of callous and arrogant detectives, of a gullible and gossip-seeking people, of professional voyeurs or indiani, who prowl its hills with electronic equipment to watch couples having sex, and still others who blackmail the indiani, threatening to send pictures of them to their families. In Preston and Spezi’s story, Florence is an unhappy, schizoid city of innuendo and intrigue.

Preston is a writer of mystery thrillers and Spezi, a hard-boiled crime reporter. Together, they serve up a veritable tour de force, even if the style is closer to potboiler thrillers. The writing may not be in the same class as Capote’s In Cold Blood and Jon Krakaeuer’s Under the Banner of Heaven. Some of the material even sounds incredulous. One example: Having sex in parked cars, say the authors, is Italy’s “national pastime". Then comes the stunner statistic: “It has been said that one out of every three Florentines alive today was conceived in a car". Barring such amusing diversions, Preston and Spezi serve up a cracking good story. Don’t miss it.

Soutik Biswas is the India editor of the BBC News website. Write to lounge@livemint.com