Robert Graysmith, “Zodiac: The Full Story of the Infamous Unsolved Zodiac Murders in California” (1986) – ehhhhhh… the movie is a lot better. Fincher gets across the obsessive quality of the case with more art than the actual obsessive (or, anyway, the obsessive in question) can manage. The one bit that’s missing from the movie that’s pretty funny is Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal’s character) saying that he got caught up in the Zodiac hunt because as a cartoonist, he is dedicated to justice. It’s a hilariously pro-forma version of the vindications that true crime writers (my understanding is that this Zodiac book did a lot to establish true crime writing in its current form) generally have to make. Probably at this point it’s gone on long enough that a few bold writers will openly say “I like to gawk at murders and so do you” but for the most part they need some edifying angle, preferably personal to them.
I don’t really follow serial killers but I get the impression the Zodiac is rather quaint. His confirmed number of kills is rather low and while any murder is awful, he’s certainly been outdone in terms of gruesomeness. A lot of the interest presumably comes from him having never been caught. And this seems to tie in with the larger theme of Zodiac lore: the supposed fecklessness and decadence of American society in the 1970s. In many respects, we have all been paying an absurdly heavy price to make up for the feeling of directionless the country felt at the time, especially where criminal justice is concerned. You can probably index the amount of mandatory-minimum laws to number of taunting letters the Zodiac sent to the newspapers and come up with a germane number (Dirty Harry’s fictionalization of the Zodiac probably had more of an impact, admittedly). But all the same… you can see how between Zodiac and the Manson killings would freak people out.
And it’s also hard to take seriously the response of supposedly enlightened parts of society to the Zodiac killings, a combination of panic, disregard, and forced posturing of various kinds. Among other things, we see an early deployment of blaming killings on the mentally ill that you see with mass shootings, but combined with a cloying and probably insincere desire to “help” sadistic killers like the Zodiac (Brian Cox’s character in the movie is, if anything, a restrained portrayal). None of this is a justification for the carceral state that arose in the late 20th century. But you can see how these things would help prime the population to both accept carceral logic and disregard soft-headed alternatives. Combatting the carceral state is going to take more than appealing to compassion (though that’s a part of it) or the preferred millennial alternative, flippant dismissal of the febrile Fox News inspired crime panics (though those narratives need challenging, urgently). I wish I had a better idea of what they look like, but hey, this is a Facebook review of a mediocre book, what do you want? **’