Monday, September 11, 2006

Zodiac, by Robert Graysmith

(pb; 1976, 1986: non-fiction)

From the back cover:

“A sexual sadist, his pleasure was torture and murder. His first victims were a teenage couple, stalked and shot dead in a lovers' lane. After another slaying, he sent his first mocking note to authorities, promising he would kill more.
“The official tally of his victims was six. He claimed thirty-seven dead. The real toll may have reached fifty.

“He was never caught.

“Author Robert Graysmith was on staff at the San Francisco Chronicle in 1969 when the hooded killer's first letter arrived. In this gripping account of Zodiac's eleven-month reign of terror, Graysmith reveals hundreds of facts previously unreleased, including the complete text of the killer's letters.”


Political-cartoonist-turned-investigative-reporter Graysmith charts the infamous killer's murders and the ongoing investigations resulting from them. According to Graysmith, the murders that could be legitimately attributed to the Zodiac happened between 1966 and 1974, though the killer continued to sporadically send letters to the cops and media long after that.

While the identity of the Zodiac isn't revealed – there were several strong suspects, among the 2500 people investigated – a composite of the killer's personality emerges: he was a movie buff, especially fascinated by the movies The Most Dangerous Game (1932) A Game of Death (1945), and Run for the Sun (1956), which were but three cinematic adaptations of Richard Connell's 1924 adventure story, “The Most Dangerous Game.” Connell's story (and the resulting films) not only birthed the Zodiac's M.O., but the story was referenced in the killer's taunting letters (“ is the most dangerous animal of all to kill...”).

The killer was a weapons nut, particularly enamored of guns; he also was into diving – his symbol, a cross within a circle (resembling a rifle's cross hairs), was taken from a popular diving wrist watch called the “World Famous Zodiac Watch.” (Zodiac's cineaste leanings are further revealed in Graysmith's follow-up book, Zodiac Unmasked, when Graysmith mentions that there was a 1939 movie which the killer undoubtedly saw, called Charlie Chan At Treasure Island, which featured a character called Zodiac.)

As Graysmith notes, Zodiac displayed little, if any, originality in his cryptograms, varying M.O., or letters. Everything he said and did stemmed from popular items or culture, though his cryptograms were difficult to solve.

This is an excellent book. Graysmith captures well the personalities of those involved in the Zodiac drama, from the victims to the cops to the killer himself, though Graysmith doesn't prove who did the murders. Graysmith does mention a likely suspect, whom many seemed to “like” for the killings – Robert (“Bob”) Hall Starr, not the suspect's real name. The last part of the book sums up why Graysmith thinks Starr is the Zodiac, though there was one big snag: Starr's handwriting, probably not his real handwriting, and possibly written while under the influence of another personality (which could alter one's writing style), doesn't match the Zodiac's.

This is also a landmark book, in that for the first time, Graysmith brought together all the known facts about the Zodiac. Prior to this, many of the facts had been hoarded by jurisdiction-minded police departments. Had the departments been less protective of their legal turfs (Zodiac killed in areas of confused jurisdictions, on the edges of towns), Zodiac might've been caught long before he eventually was.

Check it out.

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