I had largely finished this book when the news came that the Italian Appeals Court – the Court of Cassation – had, on March 26 ruled that American university student Amanda Knox and Italian student Raffaele Sollecito, briefly her boyfriend, are to be retried for the murder of British student Meredith Kercher. This ruling comes more than five years after the 21-year-old from Surrey, England was found in her room, with her throat slashed and with evidence of a sexual encounter, in the university town of Perugia. The first appeals court had, in 2011, overturned the original convictions for murder and substituted acquittals for the co-accused. A new trial – at the first appellate level – will be held in Florence. Media reports strongly suggest that Knox will not attend that trial (although perhaps she will nonetheless be represented?) and interesting issues relating to extradition might arise should she be convicted a second time. Sollecito, who continues to reside in Italy, would seem to have no option but to attend the new trial.
In light of the many passionate utterances on the fate of these two accused since the 2007 murder of Meredith Kercher – but wait, the vast majority of comments concern only Amanda Knox, the attractive young student who came from Seattle to study Italian in the beautiful hilltown of Perugia – I will inject a note of caution into my response to Burleigh’s book. I agree with her conclusion that Knox and Sollecito are innocent of the charges and that the third individual involved, Rudy Guede, who was tried separately and convicted, was the only individual that we know to have been culpable. However, I think that the author feels the need to make hard-hitting statements about the foolishness of the original verdict that go beyond what a reasonable and thoughtful analysis warrants.
Of the numerous books about the case, Burleigh’s may well be the best-written. Burleigh is a veteran journalist and has written for a number of magazines including Time. She offers tart and candid observations about the rich cultural history of Italy, and in particular, the Umbrian town of Perugia and the unique aspects of life there. Perugia has an amazing history and as someone who has travelled there and marveled at the outstanding art and architecture, I can imagine showing up in the capital city of this central Italian region of Umbria for the Knox/ Sollecito trial and wandering the winding streets at the end of the day, stopping at the Arch of Augustus, the famed Etruscan Arch that serves as a gateway into the city centre. I would reflect on the fact that the so-called primitive lifestyle of the Etruscans, albeit capable of great cultural production, at least operated without the media circus that accompanies trials of this kind. Burleigh is one of many American writers who decry the inflammatory headlines and newscasts that cast considerable suspicion on the accused in the months leading up to the trial.
Two other parts of A Fatal Beauty that I found of particular interest were her discussion of the sexual objectification and exploitation of women in Italy. The country ranks very low indeed in the Gender Equality ratings for an advanced Western European nation. Perugia has, in recent decades, developed a dark side as a criminal hub, operating as a crossroads for the heroin coming up from Naples and being then transported by low-level dealer gangs to Rome and elsewhere. Further, as one of the most important locations for Masonic lodges and the unusual rituals engaged in by the Freemasons, the city apparently is prone to extravagant conspiracy theories. In any event, Burleigh makes a plausible case that where one of the accused, Knox, is a beautiful woman, brash and yet a relatively inexperienced newcomer to Italy, the rumour mills will work overtime and prejudices may come into play once the trial starts. However, while the author does a good job of painting a vibrant picture of contemporary Perugia and the culture clash that ensued when Knox became first, a suspect and then, an accused facing trial, I am not sure that she accomplished her goal of linking the culture clash to the deliberations of the professional and lay judges (the latter sometimes called jurors). Can individuals hearing testimony day in and day out and charged with the awesome responsibilities they possess in a murder trial not develop a fair-minded and relatively unbiased approach to the evidence? If the allegation is that they do not, what is it based on?
It is a difficult task for a writer of a book for a general audience to explain the intricacies of a foreign legal system to the target audience – American and other Anglo-American countries) – and go on to describe the major moments in the trial itself. However, given that this is not the type of true crime book where the main mystery to solve is capturing the right person and putting together a solid case, it would have been helpful to have devoted more than 30 pages to the trial itself. As well, at times Burleigh descends into standard journalese. She tells us that the chief judge is a “Woody Allen look-alike” and that not only was Amanda a hippie, but the trial is taking place on the very spot where St.Francis of Assisi was held prisoner and that he was the “Western world’s original hippie.”
I would, for all of these flaws, recommend The Fatal Gift of Beauty as a lively and at times insightful account of a fascinating trial that has captured the imagination of millions around the world. Of course, a definitive account will only be achieved by some future writer and the plot continues.
Blood on the Altar: In Search of a Serial Killer, by Tobias Jones
Nina Burleigh actually begins her first chapter with a quote from the outstanding account of recent Italian history and culture, The Dark Heart of Italy, by Tobias Jones. Jones states, in relation to postwar Italian history:
… surrounding any crime or political event, there are always confusion, suspicion, and “the bacillus of secrecy.” So much so that dietrologia has become sort of a national pastime.
Blood on the Altar is, like the Knox case, a classic cronica nera, or black crime because it has lurid or sensational elements, mysterious presences and an impenetrable aspect. So, for a very long time, conspiracy theorists in Italy of all sorts can weigh in and know that it is most unlikely that they will be definitely refuted.
Blood on the Altar is one of the best true crime books and true justice books I have read. The story involves the shocking disappearance of Elisa Chaps, last seen in a church on a lazy Sunday afternoon in Potenza in 1993. She was the deeply loved 16-year-old daughter of a hardworking tobacconist and his ever-hopeful wife. Elisa was an idealist who dreamed of working for Medicin Sans Frontieres. I was particularly moved by the portrait Jones gives us of the family, whom he got to know over the years, and particularly of Elisa’s brother Gildo. The young man who had to mature beyond his years from the date of the disappearance – he was a few credits short of a law degree but gave that up to concentrate on finding his missing sister – emerges as a true hero. Gildo not only shouldered the ongoing misery of not knowing what vile act had been done to his sister but, seeing the need to help others, founded the Associazione Penelope for missing persons. He realized that many others in Italy needed a support network to help keep their courage up in the ongoing struggle to carry on in the absence of an opportunity to mourn in a truly meaningful way.
The book gives a finely etched portrait of Lucania in Southern Italy. It seems somehow fitting that this deeply sorrowful tale takes place in this remote region, immortalized by Carlo Levi when he was sent there under confinement by Mussolini. In Christ Stopped at Eboli, Levi describes it in haunting terms as a land “hedged in by custom and sorrow, cut off from history and the State… a land without comfort or solace.” The book also contains a rather eerie villain, a likely suspect whom authorities seem to fail to pursue diligently even though the family offers invaluable information to them.
By a rather remarkable coincidence Jones, sometime after failing to find the phantom criminal, moves to England. He reads in astonishment that a despicable murder has been committed in Bournemouth which will be linked directly back to the disappearance that had occurred a full, agonizing 17 years earlier. What follows is a moving account of the tracking down of Elisa’s body back to the very church where the family had suspected the murder had occurred all those years earlier. The obstacles placed in the way of a full investigation, including the baffling actions of the Roman Catholic Church, lend credence to the notion that Italy is a country governed by mysterious and at times sinister forces. What shines through is the author’s love of the unlovely region and of the poor, grieving family which suffered what no family should suffer but carried on with heads held high and in solidarity with others in their situation.