Pomona College Magazine
Volume 45, No. 1
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Pomona College Magazine is published three times a year by Pomona College
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Online Editor: Laura Tiffany

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Nonfiction / The Brothers Preston
Of Cannibals and Monsters

By Laura Tiffany

Truth can be stranger than fiction, and both Richard Preston ’76 and his brother Douglas Preston ’78 have documented those truths in recent nonfiction novels, released this past summer just two weeks apart.

In Panic in Level 4: Cannibals, Killer Viruses, and Other Journeys to the Edge of Science, Richard collected and updated seven of his well-known New Yorker articles on subjects like a terrible genetic disease that causes self-cannibalizing and the search for the unknown host of Ebola virus. But perhaps the most thrilling section is the introduction, where he describes his experiences in a failed spacesuit in a Level 4 Ebola lab. “I talk about trying to get inside the minds of the people I write about, including Lieutenant Colonel Nancy Jaax, who’s the main figure in The Hot Zone,” says Richard. Jaax had a breach in Level 4; her spacesuit, horrifyingly, was flooded with Ebola-infected blood. “So in trying to write about her, I wanted to go into Level 4 and see what it really felt like to put on a spacesuit and really come face to face with a hot virus like Ebola,“ says Richard. “But I got more than I had bargained for.”

For Douglas, it was the Italian police, not a virus, that turned his writing experience into an unwelcome adventure. After moving to Italy to write a mystery, he discovered an unsolved double murder—part of a serial- killing spree—that had occurred outside his rented farmhouse. His curiosity piqued, Douglas teamed with journalist Mario Spezi to study the case and eventually write The Monster of Florence. The police contended that the murders, which occurred between 1974 and 1985, were the work of a satanic sect. Douglas and Spezi disagreed.

At one point, Spezi went on Italy’s version of America’s Most Wanted and presented evidence about how off-base the official investigation was. “The chief inspector in charge of the investigation did not take kindly to being made a fool of on national television. So his reaction was to raid Spezi’s house,” says Douglas, who has also written a dozen thrillers with co-author Lincoln Chiild, as well as several solo books. Spezi saved their in-the-works book by hiding a diskette, but he still was held in jail for 23 days, released only after an international uproar.

Douglas was also hauled in and accused of being an accessory. “Then they pretty much threw me out of Italy. They basically suggested that I’d be indicted for a series of crimes and that if I returned, I’d be arrested,” says Douglas, who had already moved back to the U.S.

The Monster of Florence has so far had great success, spending several weeks on The New York Times bestseller list. Douglas says the brothers, who plan on collaborating someday on a childhood memoir, don’t have any rivalry when it comes to their books, but jokes about Richard’s huge success with The Hot Zone, which has sold 2.5 million copies. “I’ve got a lot of catching up to do here, but that’s OK. I’m the younger brother. I’ve got a little bit of time to catch up to him.”
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