First published back in January of 1986, US true crime author Robert Graysmith’s debut book ‘Zodiac’ was the culmination of ten years’ worth of personal investigation and research into the notorious serial killer ‘The Zodiac’. The book began Graysmith’s reasonably successful career in true crime writing and has since spawned the follow-up book ‘Zodiac Unmasked’ (2002) as well as a loose adaptation into the film ‘Zodiac’ (2007) by David Fincher.
Whilst on a first date in December of 1968, high school students Betty Jensen and David Faraday parked-up along a secluded spot known locally as Lover’s Lane located alongside Lake Herman. Shortly after 11pm, another car pulled up beside them. Rolling down his window, the stranger asked the young couple to get out of their car. When they refused, the shadowy man pulled out a gun and proceeded to encircle their vehicle. What followed was nothing short of a harrowing execution. A double-murder which would send shockwaves through the local community.
The following July, another young couple - Michael Mageau and Darlene Ferrin – pulled-up at the Blue Rock Springs Park in Vallejo (just two miles from Lover’s Lane along Lake Herman Road) after having been trailed by a bronze-looking Corvair. Moments after stopping in a spot overlooking the golf course, the Corvair pulled-up alongside them and a man clutching a torch exited the vehicle. Thinking it was the local police, the young lovers waited in their car for the man to approach. All of a sudden a blinding light was shone into their eyes and before the couple knew what was going on, or had any chance to react, a gun had been pulled on them and five shots ripped into the two young lovers. The gunman then returned to his car and drove off.
The very next day Vallejo Police Station received an anonymous phone call from a man claiming responsibility for both attacks. The police traced the call to a public phone at a nearby petrol station, but produced no further leads on the killer. Meanwhile, Darlene Ferrin was pronounced dead in the nearby hospital. Michael Mageau on the other hand, somehow managed to survive the ordeal – providing the police with their first description on the killer.
However, the gloating communication from the killer who had dubbed himself The Zodiac had only just begun. The following month three identical handwritten letters further claiming responsibility for the recent killings were received by three separate local newspapers. Along with the letters were three different portions of a cipher which the writer claimed, when deciphered, would reveal his identity. The Zodiac promised that if the three portions of the cipher were not published on the front page of the next editions of the respective papers – then more murders would follow.
The taunting of the police that would continue for years to come had now begun. More innocent deaths would follow. The Zodiac would claim responsibility for thirty-seven. However, only seven deaths by the killer’s hands were ever confirmed. But most worrying of all is the fact that he was never caught…
When the author of a true crime book is actually involved in the course of events (however much of a small part it may be), it always makes for a much more engaging and compelling read. Like with Ann Rule’s unique involvement with Ted Bundy, detailed within her book ‘The Stranger Beside Me’ (1980), Robert Graysmith actually had a relatively minor part to play in the (still ongoing) case of The Zodiac.
Okay, so Graysmith has never been an investigator or even a reporter on the case, either at the time of the murders or afterwards. In fact, Graysmith was simply a cartoonist working for The San Francisco Chronicle (one of the newspapers that The Zodiac sent letters to) during the time. However, Graysmith took a particular interest in the case – building up his own scrapbook of evidence which would eventually lead him to come to some reasonably convincing conclusions. And after ten years of pulling together whatever he could on the killer; researching, investigating and speculating – Graysmith put everything he had built up into a book on The Zodiac. This book is the end result.
Following a short three-page introduction, the book begins with the shooting of David Faraday and Betty Jensen along Lover’s Lane. Graysmith paints a particularly vivid picture of what occurred – obviously embellishing upon the story somewhat to add atmosphere and set the scene. Indeed, Graysmith adlibs conversation and weaves a particularly captivating story – doing his upmost to draw the reader into the scene. Alongside these ‘scene-setting-elements’ Graysmith literally crams in as many facts and details as he can possible manage. Barely a sentence or two go by without an exact time, or a particular detail being mentioned.
This attention to absolute detail is something that is evident throughout the length of the book. Indeed, Graysmith certainly likes to set down whatever facts he knows about the case. And it’s something that on the whole doesn’t really get in the way of telling the story (so to speak), but at times can start to slow down the delivery. However, with such a permanent eye on the details, Graysmith does allow the reader to view the crime from almost every perceivable angle – allowing for a vivid impression of the events to begin to form in the reader’s mind.
Following the first chapter, Graysmith maintains a compelling narrative – keeping up a good solid pace as he details the proceeding attacks over the course of the book. Throughout this the book’s chapters are segregated by either the murder of another victim or instead more of the Zodiac’s enigmatic communication.
Once the Zodiac’s killing spree draws to an end, Graysmith launches the book headfirst into a full-blown effort to try and identify who could be responsible for the murders. For this Graysmith dissects every last detail of the Zodiacs many letters; speculating on even the weakest of connections, clues and motivations wherever remotely possible. And to be frank – Graysmith really stretches every inch of credible plausibility here. It’s pretty fair to say that Graysmith has quite an imagination on him. And just from reading his wild speculations, you can see how desperate he is in finding any possible threads which could assist in identifying the killer.
Graysmith even goes so far as to produce a somewhat lengthy list of ‘unsolved murders’ within the ‘hunting ground’ of the Zodiac, to further speculate upon the idea that some of these deaths could have been associated with the Zodiac as well. Yeah, we all know what Graysmith’s getting at – there’s a chance (however small it may be) that Zodiac’s claim of thirty-seven kills may perhaps hold some weight. In my honest opinion I think it’s nonsense. But Graysmith clearly wants to sensationalise the whole thing as much as possible. After all, why settle with just seven kills when there’s the potential for thirty-seven? And Graysmith goes to extraordinary lengths to show how this could be possible.
The latter portion of the book is dedicated to looking at two of the main suspects for the murders (both of which are given assumed names to protect their identities). To be honest, for the most part Graysmith puts down a pretty convincing case for both individuals. The sheer volume of circumstantial evidence against both suspects appears pretty damming in each case. But none of the evidence is solid. And after Graysmith has worked so hard to put forward his two possible suspects, and the reader can stop and think about what has been presented, it becomes pretty obvious that Graysmith (and indeed the entire authorities investigating the matter) are still just clutching at straws.
Nevertheless it makes for quite an interesting, entertaining and thought-provoking read. Yes you need to take a lot of what Graysmith presents with a good old pinch of salt. Graysmith seems to have gotten too close, too involved, and too desperate to make valid judgments. Pondering and speculating is all well and good, but when taken to such an nth degree; flaws, holes and wild jumps of faith begin to appear all over the shop. But then, in a strange way, that’s still perhaps part of the enjoyment of Graysmith’s book.
The book runs for a total of 323 pages.
© DLS Reviews