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Who was Zodiac? A serial killer who claimed 37 dead. A sexual sadist who taunted police with anonymous notes. A madman who was never apprehended. This is the first, complete account of Zodiac's reign of terror. Is he still out there?

307 pages, Mass Market Paperback

First published January 1, 1986

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About the author

Robert Graysmith

18 books266 followers
ROBERT GRAYSMITH is the New York Times Bestselling author and illustrator of Zodiac , Auto Focus , and Black Fire . He was the political cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle when the letters and cryptograms from the infamous Zodiac killer were opened in the morning editorial meetings. He lives in San Francisco where he continues to write and illustrate.

Zodiac by Robert Graysmith Zodiac Unmasked The Identity of America's Most Elusive Serial Killer Revealed by Robert Graysmith Unabomber A Desire to Kill by Robert Graysmith The Sleeping Lady The Trailside Murders Above the Golden Gate by Robert Graysmith The Murder Of Bob Crane Who Killed the Star of Hogan's Heroes? by Robert Graysmith The Bell Tower The Case of Jack the Ripper Finally Solved... in San Francisco by Robert Graysmith Amerithrax The Hunt for the Anthrax Killer by Robert Graysmith The Laughing Gorilla The True Story of the Hunt for One of America's First Serial Killers by Robert Graysmith The Girl in Alfred Hitchcock's Shower by Robert Graysmith Black Fire The True Story of the Original Tom Sawyer--and of the Mysterious Fires That Baptized Gold Rush-Era San Francisco by Robert Graysmith Shooting Zodiac by Robert Graysmith

Graysmith's latest book Shooting Zodiac is now available in paperback!

Amazon | Barnes and Noble | Books-A-Million | Kobo | Apple Books | Google Play Books

Two films have been based on his books: Auto Focus and Zodiac. Graysmith is portrayed in the film Zodiac by Jake Gyllenhaal.

Also narrated by the author are the audiobooks Black Fire and Zodiac Unmasked .

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 1,064 reviews
Profile Image for Brad.
Author 2 books1,684 followers
November 22, 2008
Let's say you're a serial killer. Now let's say what gets you off more than anything except your killings, is to taunt the cops with letters that mock their inability to catch you. You, of course, do not want to be caught, but there is always the possibility.

Now let's say you just happen to work at a famous newspaper, one of the papers to which you like to send your letters. How lucky for you, or how wonderfully designed, because as a member at the paper you are insinuated into the investigation, giving you access to evidence and the actual police working on the case.

Now let's say you're an artist. An artist who is capable of duplicating the "killer's" writing if you want. No one will later suspect when you "figure out" how the killer writes his cryptograms. But then you take it a step further and announce you are going to write the definitive book on the killer.

Suddenly you have even more evidence being heaped in your lap, and now you are able to fix many of the mistakes of the police. No one would possibly suspect you.

Now you want everyone to know who you've killed, so you reveal all your victims in the book, suggesting that they are "possible" victims while knowing they are far more than "possible." How marvelously taunting, and how much more superior does it make you than the police?

But it gets better. Now that you are writing the book, you can talk to the police, in every county, about their suspects, and you can choose the suspect they most like and speculate at will about that suspect's guilt, fully deflecting the investigation from yourself while you gleefully go on with your life, writing about yourself and your life's great work until Hollywood comes knocking and asks to make a movie of not just your obsessive killing life but your obsessive writing life.

Everything that you've written, the fiction of you and the fact of your killings, is now being made by one of Hollywood's greatest living directors, and unbeknownst to him or anyone else -- you are the killer. It is the ultimate joke. The ultimate gag. The ultimate mystery. And you can now die as the most famous uncaught serial killer since Jack the Ripper (or is that Walter Sickert?).

Now wouldn't that be something?
Profile Image for Reading Corner.
88 reviews104 followers
March 25, 2016
2.75-3 stars

I decided to pick this book up after watching Zodiac which was completely enthralling, however this was not the case for this book.The book was definitely well researched as it contains information from various sources,witnesses and reports.The book goes into extreme detail which was interesting at times but most of the time, it was just too much.

It feels as if Robert Graysmith just dumped all of his findings into the book without editing anything.Some of the details feel completely irrelevant or miniscule enough to leave out, like the fact the witness was wearing a watch or how their hair looked.The massive loads of information dumps made the book incredibly hard to read at times and nearly put me to sleep.

Zodiacis a short enough book but I really did find it hard to sift through this,I kept telling myself I'd read more but most days I couldn't force myself to pick up the book again.I constantly found myself zoning out, despite the gripping facts but they were presented in such a boring manner as the important aspects of the book, were attached to plenty of irrelevant facts.

The mystery of the Zodiac himself was intriguing along with his numerous letters and writings.The rare photographs inside of the book were interesting and I enjoyed examining them.The book did get exciting when it came to the two main suspects who act in peculiar ways.

I much preferred the film to this, this could have been a great book if it was edited better and the writing was adjusted.
Profile Image for Brett C.
783 reviews156 followers
May 2, 2021

I really enjoyed reading this crime story. To this day, the Zodiac Killer has never been caught. I saw the movie in 2007 when I was stationed in Monterey, California, and thought it was good. The book is laid out in the journalism fashion with chronological dates relating to law enforcement leads and information put together by the author himself. Robert Graysmith does a great job of telling the story and events surrounding the Zodiac's first confirmed killings beginning in December 1968 and up until October 1969. The killings were accompanied with coded ciphers all beginning with "This Is The Zodiac Speaking..."

The author drives home with the Two Man theory, where one was the killer and the other wrote the ciphers given to the newspapers. The other theory being the mysterious and elusive loner theory (an ex-cop one step ahead of the authorities, a military man with a crew-cut and cipher training, a traveling salesman). The author presents the WHY with the psychological profile of someone who could commit these murders. This was explained in great detail by a psychiatrist: a paranoid schizophrenic or a sexual sadist (pgs 256-60 ). Second there is theory of WHEN the Zodiac killed. There is a detailed explanation correlating with astrological/celestial movement and times/dates attempting to explain when the Zodiac killed (pgs 244-48).

The creepy scene from the movie when Jake Gyllenhaal's character (the author of the book) is in the house investigating a lead. Their discussion leads them down into the basement. "Once again Bernell assured me we were completely alone. But I could hear, faintly but unmistakably, the slow, methodical, easy tread of footsteps on the floor above." pg 233

As of March 2021, the case remains open under the Vallejo Police Department. They are attempting to retrieve DNA evidence on the stamps on the envelopes used by the killer when he mailed his cryptic messages. I thought this book was great and I enjoyed every bit of it. Robert Graysmith puts lots of supplementary material in the back appendices: victims (attacked and possible), letter timelines, handprinting, speech patterns, descriptions by witnesses, and lots of other relevant material. I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys true crime stories. Thanks!
Profile Image for Christopher.
354 reviews47 followers
December 6, 2016

Things to keep in mind before you read this.

1) Have you seen the movie? Because going by reviews here, if you see the movie first, you won't like the book. I suspect because people can't grasp the idea that the movie can get away with more in the name of entertainment than something sitting on the True Crime shelves can. This is "true crime," not "fiction based on a real event." Also, the movie covers things in the author's real life, which the book isn't about to do. They're just different. Stop being that person who disparages a book because of a movie, or vice versa. They can all be good and different. How did I even get on a rant? Next!

2) Every bit of non-fiction has biases. Anyone dedicating enough of their time to write a book on a topic will be biased in some ways in all cases. Anyone dedicating so much time to a murder case that their wife leaves them over it is going to be crazy biased. Just keep that in mind before reading any non-fiction, especially True Crime.

3) This is about the victims. The Zodiac killer was never caught, so it's not like we have interviews with him, or a diary, or other evidence from his home. There are the letters, but those are meticulously designed for the public by the killer, so those only say so much. What this means is that a book about the Zodiac killer is a book about the victims. We get background about them, especially the early victims, and what can be pieced together from the crime scenes. But note that this isn't a book where you can learn about how a serial killer ticks because he is never caught. Everything in that vein is guesswork. It's still very interesting to go over the evidence, but keep in mind what you're getting into. Lots of detail about the victims actions the evenings in question, and then some guesswork about their actual deaths.

Ok, you cool with those three and are still here? This entire case is fascinating. The beginning of this book starts slow due to the aforementioned talking about victims, but I ended up getting through the last 2/3rds in a sitting, so it gets going after a bit. By far the most interesting aspect of this case are the letters Zodiac sends to newspapers. I was mostly on audiobook, so I don't know if the book proper has photos, but if not, or you are also on audiobook, be sure to check out the photos of the letters. https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Zodiac...

The book is pretty heavy-handed with minor details that aren't important, but I chalked that up to being forced to tell a story when the author doesn't have most of it. And he's not a writer. I still enjoyed it all a lot, but it isn't always a super smooth read. Again, not an author. He only has half a story, if that. And it's in True Crime, so he can't just make up mess to fill in the gaps. Though I will admit to a couple of "what? That's too coincidental" before reminding myself that this all actually happened. Life is insane.

The largest problem I have with the book, which I enjoyed and recommend, is the last 20ish percent. I mentioned biases previously. Our author has some extremely strong biases against a particular suspect that he goes full ham on in the last portion of the book. That the suspect was never charged should tell you immediately that the evidence isn't as strong as the author is making it out to be. That the suspect died a few years after this book came out and there wasn't any evidence in his house after hurts the author's case even more.

But! Other than that, it's a strong book. I obviously can't tell you if anything in it is accurate, but I'm not reading it in order to attempt to solve the case. I'm just here to read about one of the most interesting serial killers in US history.

Yes, Maximus. I was quite entertained.
Profile Image for Valliya Rennell.
342 reviews230 followers
March 25, 2020
3 stars

"Just because you can't prove it doesn't mean it's not true."

I have been fascinated by the Zodiac case for a very long time now. I watched the movie, read a bunch of the articles, saw the arguments for many suspects, but I wanted more. I decided to pick up Zodiac because I wanted to get insights from someone who was actually there, actually obsessed with the murders and finding out who Zodiac was. I got exactly what I wanted from this book.

Robert Graysmith's Zodiac is not supposed to be descriptive, written with poetic language. It gives you the cold-hard facts of the case. Many people will not write this book because of that reason. If you are expecting a narrative, you won't get it here. It is very much date after date of the investigation. You will be swarmed by names of people, locations, analyses of weapons and ammunition types. And after all that you won't have an answer to the age old question of "who is Zodiac?" Some may find this annoying, I find it beautiful and disturbing.

The edition I read contained real visuals that really helped you understand what Toschi, Armstrong and the others were working with. This is something I really appreciated for I loved looking at the numerous ciphers and wondering what they meant. I loved learning about how the answer to them were discovered, but once again, this is not for everyone as it goes through the case detail by detail.

If you are looking for a deep-dive into the Zodiac case, you will really like this book. If you want a narrative, kind of like creative non-fiction, this is not the novel for you. Personally, I think that it had a purpose and it accomplished what it set out to do.
Profile Image for alittlelifeofmel.
880 reviews342 followers
June 25, 2017
It's sad to say that I dnf'd this with 40 pages left. 40 pages left and I couldn't be bothered to finish. I think the reason why is because there isn't an ending. We all know the Zodiac was never caught so why am I intruiged to know how it ends.

I mean... it had a promising start. It was gripping, detailed, talked about victims and the letters. But like halfway through it started to get dull. No suspects had been announced. Most letters were being credited as hoaxes. There were no more victims. I had half the book to go and it seemed like I was going to be stuck getting a ton of detective insider drama

But then the end. We finally got a plausible suspect named but then it turned into name dropping. This person knew this person who knew this person who thinks this person is the zodiac. So I slowly lost interest. And then you get like 20 pages of the codes and the ciphers and the symbols and then it just started to sound like those illuminati theories. "She drank chocolate milk on the 3rd day of the month and a man in blue jeans bought chocolate at a grocery store on the 23rd of the month so clearly they're connected." It was so far fetched. And then follow that up with 10 pages of names and dates of people who died who may or may not be victims of zodiac. I had to stop after this I wasn't having it.

It just got too boring and conspiracy theory for me to deal with. Graysmith just started rambling and grasping at straws. I admire his dedication but it seems a little too much, like he was hiding something or trying to cover something else up.
Profile Image for Erin .
1,214 reviews1,119 followers
February 8, 2019
God! That was a slog.

I didn't like this one. Zodiac isn't a bad book its just incredibly dry. I like a little story with my facts but Robert Graysmith is all facts. This happened on this date to this person and here are some Zodiac letters. I stopped caring about this book about 30 pages in but I continued because I thought that it might get better. It never did.

I'm giving Zodiac 2 Stars instead of 1 Star because I don't think its a terrible book its just mind numbingly boring.
Profile Image for Becky.
1,319 reviews1,610 followers
May 17, 2016
Would you believe that I was unfamiliar with the Zodiac killer until last week? I mean... I knew that there was a serial killer who went by the name, but I didn't know anything at all about the details of the murders or the killer himself. I had never even seen the movie.

I think that this ignorance kind of benefited me. I skimmed some of the other reviews for this book, and I see a lot of complaints about the fact that Graysmith included every single detail. But I didn't even notice this. My not knowing anything at all about this case allowed me to get caught up in the stories of these killings, and I thought it was a fascinating look at a very disturbed and disturbing person, and the mystery of it kept me enthralled.

I did end up seeing the movie after I finished the book, and while I think that the movie was good, I still prefer the book. I liked how the movie gave Graysmith a bit of humanity - a family who was affected by his obsession with the case, but I think that it made other changes that I didn't like - not explaining a lot of the details and connections, and jumping huge gaps of time, and not going into the family details of the main suspect they had. I liked the level of detail in the book and felt that there was a lot missing from the movie. But judging each on their own, both are good... just in different ways.

I do think that listening to the audio helped though. I was completely immersed in the book, and there were times when I would sit in the car listening to the book because I wasn't quite ready to turn it off. I was just fascinated. I really enjoyed it, as crazy as that may be.

If I had one criticism, it would be the layout of the book. It kind of jumped around in time and going back to murders etc... which does make sense as connections were made and more info was pieced together... but it was a little confusing at times. But mostly, I was just completely fascinated by this.
Profile Image for rachel.
744 reviews141 followers
January 28, 2014
The facts of the Zodiac case are like the worst urban legends sprung to life. As any true crime fanatic knows, real life is where the real nightmares come from and boy, did Zodiac make many nightmares reality.

He was the hooded executioner who tied up and pretended to rob a young couple, then came back to stab them over and over in front of each other, throwing their money and car keys back at them before leaving. He rigged single women's cars so that their batteries would run down or their tires would fall off and they would innocently look to him for assistance. He ambushed unsuspecting couples on Lover's Lanes and took a full cab ride only to shoot the driver on his way out. He called 911 to report his own murders. He's everything campfire tales are made of, except he was real.

Robert Graysmith, the San Francisco Chronicle cartoonist who was on staff at the time of the killings and who became obsessed with the case after the Zodiac letters started arriving at the paper, does a good job of narrating the who, what, and where of the crimes. As the fantastic Fincher film based on this book shows, investigating the case consumed Graysmith for over a decade. Some of his amateur sleuthing produces smart insights, such as the idea that Zodiac must have traced the block characters that made up his ciphers over some kind of grid, because no human naturally writes so straight, and perhaps this means that all of "Zodiac's" handwriting was traced on a projector and is not his at all.

But some of the connections Graysmith makes lead you to doubt the legitimacy of other theories simply because he seems like such a crazy. "Was Zodiac being unconsciously dominated by the moon?" I don't know, Robert. Are you?

It is also true that Graysmith gives way too much detail about things that have no relevance to the case. At one point, he lists about two full pages worth of deaths and suspected homicides in the general vicinity in the years since the last known Zodiac activity and asserts that these murders "could be" potentially attributed to the Zodiac. One of the deaths listed is a strychnine poisoning, which is nowhere near as personal or as terroristic as the Zodiac's MO. Of course someone who is compelled to kill won't appear to stop killing unless they're institutionalized, dead, or in prison, but I think it's much more likely that the Zodiac was institutionalized, dead, or in prison than responsible for all of the unsolved murders in his part of California. Graysmith's good when he sticks to the known facts and relating his more plausible ideas, but the rest of this book is iffy.
Profile Image for Jayakrishnan.
488 reviews160 followers
December 16, 2022
No other country publishes as many books about serial killers as America does. As a serial killer/murderer, your legacy depends on how good a writer the person writing your book is. Someone like Gary Gilmore (a minnow in the vast pantheon of American serial killers and murderers) was embraced by none other than Norman Mailer. While the more notorious ones like Ted Bundy and Charles Manson had average writers like Ann Rule and Vincent Bugliosi write books about them. The Zodiac killer - probably the most vainglorious (because he kept sending taunting letters to the newspapers and authorities) of them gets a writer who not only lays down an exhaustive amount of evidence and suspects, but also adds a touch of intrigue to the whole affair. Was there more than one killer? Were a string of murders in neighboring counties committed by the Zodiac? Was there a connection to the occult? What did Darlene Ferrin really know?

Zodiac must be one of the greatest police procedural books of all time. Why aren't there more books and films like it? To be fair, most of the investigation is conducted by a crime reporter and a cartoonist. But this book is the real deal. I loved how Graysmith examined suspect after suspect, following leads and using all sorts of evidence - especially handwriting to narrow down the suspects. The book might actually offer future serial killers tips to avoid getting caught by the police.

I also liked Graysmith's short descriptions of places like Vallejo. America is such a huge country, it is impossible to police every inch of it. It is a serial killer's paradise. Though it is mostly a police procedural, it also offers a glimpse into American culture of the late 60s and 70s - the cars, the diners, the food and the increasing social mobility and sexual freedom for women.
Profile Image for Paul.
2,306 reviews20 followers
October 5, 2016
I picked this up because I enjoyed the movie version and thought I'd investigate the truth behind the Hollywoodization (that is SO a word).

I found this book very interesting, despite its somewhat uneven tone. It's quite dry in places but, hey, it's journalism not fiction, so I'm not expecting it to be Dickens.

Ultimately, though, due to the fact that the Zodiac killer was never caught, it kind of peters out at the end, leaving one feeling rather unsatisfied. Still, I'm glad I read it.
Profile Image for Ted Leon.
50 reviews2 followers
May 31, 2013
Be careful if you read this book. It has a very high potential to get you addicted to the case and try to figure out who the Zode is.
Profile Image for Ashley Daviau.
1,738 reviews749 followers
April 28, 2019
I was a little hesitant to read this book because I tried watching the film when it first came out and it bored me so much that it put me to sleep! I’m glad to say that the book is the total opposite and I just couldn’t turn the pages fast enough to absorb all the absolutely fascinating and yet terrifying information about this case. It’s incredibly interesting to see all the facts laid out and the story is even more chilling and disturbing because nothing was ever solved and he could still be out there somewhere!
Profile Image for Megan.
91 reviews
May 17, 2012
I will admit, I picked up this book after seeing David Fincher's Zodiac. I found the case both horrifying and intriguing and I knew I wanted to know more. The Zodiac murders happened long before I was born, but Robert Graysmith did a great job at laying out all the facts from the case in an easy to read format. However, it was quite obvious that Graysmith was not a writer (he was a cartoonist) by the unpolished way that he writes at times. I gave Zodiac four stars instead of five because the material could be dry at times, and a more skilled writer may have been able to do a better job at making those parts sparkle and shine like the rest of the text. I definitely think that this would be a great book for any true crime buff or for those who are interested in the great unsolved cases of our day and age. Also, if you enjoyed the movie, you will more than likely enjoy this book for filling in all the missing pieces and giving you a glimpse at some of the actual evidence from the case. A definite must-read for true crime fans and a good primer for those looking to get into the genre!
Profile Image for Beata.
712 reviews1,085 followers
February 22, 2018
A fascinating account of a real-life murders. You seem to know something and then it turns out that the mystery continues.
Profile Image for Maddy.
623 reviews
November 5, 2019

Well... this is my second true crime book and I am ready to admit that it is not my thing.

I tried, really, I did...

But if you have seen the movie (and I have) then you know about 70% of this book (I know, surprising accuracy, right?!) so the picture in your head is better and with greater visual effects so this is not as engaging as one might expect.

So if you have seen the movie? Don't bother with the book. But if you haven't seen the wonderful cast of Zodiac in action (shame on you), then hop to it ;D

Profile Image for Trzcionka.
673 reviews68 followers
Shelved as 'nieprzeczytane'
January 2, 2021
Kończę na 67 stronie. To było moje drugie podejście do tej pozycji. Zapowiedzi były interesujące, jak sam "bohater" książki, ale to jest tak sucho napisane, że po prostu nie dam rady... Autor szczegółowo opisuje kolejne zbrodnie, tak szczegółowo, że co dwa zdania gubię wątek i odpływam myślami. Nie mam zdrowia ani czasu na tak bez polotu prowadzoną narrację.
Profile Image for Kirk.
104 reviews25 followers
March 5, 2015
[2.5 stars, rounded to 3 for hometown bias.]

The merciless Goodreads statistics might show that I started this book in 2011, but while yes, I am a slow reader, I’m not that slow. I wasn’t on the page-a-day diet, rather I threw this book aside numerous times for months on end out of sheer frustration, but always determined to come back to it. It. Was. A. Slog. The thing with true crime, sometimes you get lucky and Truman Capote writes one, but that’s not the rule. I have genuine admiration for what Robert Graysmith, at the time the political cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle, did here. He saw a need for this book, saw no one else was writing it, and so he wrote it himself. And threw himself completely into the task, which involved a level of legwork, research, and interviews almost inconceivable. But my own take is that he needed a strong editorial hand in marshalling it into a coherent and readable book, and simply didn’t get one. The result is a quagmire of data, an absence of any real prose style, and an endurance test for the reader. The big problem here is that Zodiac might be the most uninflected book ever written. My hat is off to Graysmith for the staggering amount of research he obviously did, but it’s like he skipped the crucial step of sifting through it afterwards, and instead threw it all into his book. Where was his editor?? So you get vital and fascinating anecdotes and bits of information right alongside mundane and irrelevant factoids and dead end tangents, all given equal weight. It’s maddening.

The ‘60s bleed into the ‘70s

I have a perspective on the weirdness of the ‘70s now that I lacked when I was growing up amidst it. The social/political zeitgeist of the ‘70s wasn’t something I pondered much (as opposed to The Six Million Dollar Man, which I pondered quite a lot). It’s as if the idealism of the ‘60s didn’t go away, exactly, but curdled into something twisted. My own touchstone for the weirdness/corrosion of the decade was the SLA (Symbionese Liberation Army), possibly the dumbest and least coherent of all political radicals of the era (no small thing). Yes, the folks who kidnapped Patty Hearst in ’74, which, if nothing else, introduced the concept of brainwashing to my young self. But in 1973, in perhaps the nadir of the era’s half-assed, intellectually bankrupt, violent posturing, the SLA murdered Marcus Foster, the Superintendent of Oakland Schools. I was an Oakland elementary school kid at the time; we had a school assembly in tribute to Foster after the murder. He was the first black superintendent the Oakland school district had. Why assassinate a public school official? Something to do with a debate over introducing identification cards into the schools. Typically, the SLA didn’t even bother to learn that in fact Foster was not a proponent of the idea (which was also never implemented). Two members were arrested and convicted of the murder. This was actually the seed of the Patty Hearst kidnapping, originally conceived as a way to leverage the release of those members. Amazingly, that didn’t pan out. Most of the SLA died later in 1974 in a police shootout and resulting house fire in Los Angeles. The remaining members went into hiding. Between 1999 and 2004, most of these were finally captured, tried and convicted for a 1975 murder committed during a bank robbery in the town of Carmichael.

I don’t know how relevant that is, possibly not in the slightest, but the Zodiac phenomenon that snaked through the decade seemed of a piece with much else that was going on, particularly in the Bay Area. Ever hear of the Zebra murders? Racially motivated attacks targeting whites in San Francisco in 1973 & ’74. 22 attacks, 14 deaths. One surviving victim was Art Agnos, who years later would be elected Mayor. This remains oddly low profile. But the darkest year was undoubtedly 1978. On November 18, the Jonestown mass murder/suicide claimed over 900 lives in Guyana; the cult had relocated from SF to escape increasing scrutiny of Jim Jones. Nine days later, on Nov. 27, SF Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk were assassinated by former cop and Supervisor Dan White. Getting back on topic, what wasn’t apparent at the time but is clear now with hindsight, is that the Zodiac crimes were in a sense Act 1, and the Zodiac phenomenon was Act 2, and they didn’t overlap much. The Zodiac had seven confirmed victims, David Faraday and Betty Lou Jensen in 1968, Michael Mageau and Darlene Ferrin in 1969, Bryan Hartnell and Cecelia Shepard also in ’69, and Paul Stine in ’69. Mageau and Hartnell survived, the other five were killed. The first Zodiac letters (to the SF Chronicle, the SF Examiner, and the Vallejo Times Herald) appeared August 1, 1969. A second letter was received six days later, in which the name Zodiac was used for the first time. The last confirmed victim was Stine in October ’69. A third letter appeared three days after Stine’s murder, which included part of the cabdriver’s bloodstained shirt. There were more letters to newspapers from 1970 to 1974, but no further crimes definitively tied to the Zodiac. He kept his name front and center by frequently claiming credit for crimes he most likely read about in news stories (once claiming a tally of “Me = 37, SFPD = 0”), but the consensus is that these claims are pretty clearly horseshit.

(Graysmith also attributes the 1966 murder of Cheri Jo Bates in Riverside to the Zodiac. There are aspects to this killing that suggest it’s a possibility, but there is no consensus. Personally I’m skeptical, given that a Zodiac letter claiming credit only appeared after Paul Avery wrote an article in the Chronicle detailing the similarities.)

(There is one other incident sometimes linked to the Zodiac, sometimes not, in 1970. Kathleen Johns, driving at night through the Modesto area, pregnant and with her 10-month-old daughter in the car, was flagged down by a motorist who claimed there was a problem with one of the wheels of her car, offered to fix it, and instead made it so the wheel came off when she resumed driving. He then offered her and her child a ride to a service station in his car. He then drove for over an hour, passing several gas stations and not stopping, at one point calmly telling her he was going to kill her and her child. When he slowed at an intersection, she jumped out of the car with her daughter and hid in a field. The man looked for her with a flashlight, eventually gave up and drove off. When Johns made it to a police station, she saw a composite sketch of the Zodiac and said that was the man who abducted her. While undoubtedly a terrifying incident, there is no real evidence that the Zodiac was in fact her abductor.)

Graysmith's exhaustive approach does yield some truly bizarre anecdotes. My favorite of these involves a low budget movie about the Zodiac that played for a week in 1981:

Chronicle reporter Duffy Jennings told me of a contest the producers of the Zodiac movie devised inviting moviegoers to win a new motorcycle by filling out cards telling in 25 words of less "I believe the Zodiac killed because..." Thinking the real Zodiac might be curious and vain enough to see the film, a huge carton was set up in the lobby for deposit of entries, and inside it crouched a man who read each card as it slipped through the slot at the top. Ostensibly, he was to alert theater management via intercom when he spotted a suspicious entry from someone claiming to be the actual killer.

Unaccountably, this failed to crack the case. But hey, what a cool thing to put on one's resume.

I’m not old enough to have any memory of the crimes, but in the late ‘70s I would occasionally read about a new Zodiac rumor, most often in Herb Caen’s column in the Chronicle. I also remember reading an investigative piece (in the ’80s?) that detailed the jurisdictional rivalries, which were so ingrained as to hinder any notion of cooperation between agencies. Basically, SF didn’t want Vallejo to solve it and get the credit, nor did Vallejo want SF to solve it, nor did Benecia want… Oddly, this aspect is barely mentioned in the book; possibly no one wanted to own up to this on the record. Obviously the fact that the murders remain unsolved contributes greatly to the lasting cultural memory. I would even speculate that had the Zodiac been caught, the cultural impact might have been diminished. One salient point about true crime books is they tend to demystify killers. Read enough of them, and you begin to realize that brilliant Hannibal Lecter-type figures are almost entirely in the province of fiction. Zodiac comes off as half-bright, smart and careful enough to avoid obvious mistakes but otherwise delusional and intellectually stunted. Also, he would have been caught had he not been gifted with one bit of incredible luck.

Sometimes the movie really is better

In 2007 David Fincher made an utterly brilliant movie about the Zodiac, one of those rare occasions when I knew instantly I had just seen one of my favorite films ever. It’s a rather counterintuitive movie, in that it’s intensely procedural, never really settles on a main character (Jake Gyllenhaal, playing Graysmith, comes closest), and strains to be as literal as possible. Usually a movie’s greatness comes from a subjective vision, but Fincher filmed each Zodiac crime as a recreation of witness accounts (and therefore, doesn’t portray the Faraday/Jensen killings at all, because there were no witnesses), and never showed the killer’s face. The movie does ultimately endorse Arthur Leigh Allen as a likely suspect (in the book he’s called Bob Starr, a pseudonymn likely necessitated by the fact Allen was still alive when the book was written – he died in 1992), but even then, there’s no smoking gun moment, just an accumulation of evidence. And still there are things that don’t fit, such as a DNA test in 2002 that was not a match for Allen. But ultimately Fincher’s Zodiac is about three men who became consumed to varying degrees by the case: Graysmith, the SFPD detective Dave Toschi, and Chronicle reporter Paul Avery. We know there can’t be a clear resolution; and yet it’s riveting. Movie taglines are a lost art, but Zodiac had one that is spot on: There’s more than one way to lose your life to a serial killer. And the film closes with one of the most haunting endings you’ll ever see.

One Mistake

Only the Stine killing had third party witnesses. The Zodiac was a passenger in Stine’s cab, shot him from behind, took his wallet and car keys, tore off a bit of his bloodstained shirt, wiped down the cab, and left on foot. Three teenagers witnessed this from across the street and called police. Shortly after a responding police car encountered the killer walking on a sidewalk a couple blocks away. The police dispatcher’s alert had said to be on the lookout for a black suspect; the officers therefore only observed the white man on the sidewalk for several seconds, and drove on. The details of Stine’s killing are such that it is believed the killer almost certainly would have had blood on him when leaving the scene. This was the moment, I can’t help but think. Whoever the Zodiac was should have been arrested that night in 1969. No explanation has ever been offered for the dispatcher’s initial mistake.

Intermittently, the writing comes alive. For me, the most haunting figure is Darlene Ferrin, 22, a bit wild, and by multiple accounts scared of a man she vaguely knew who seemed to be stalking her. In this instance I agree with Graysmith's speculation that her stalker was likely her killer, and was the Zodiac. Which would make hers the only killing that was personal. If there was a road to unmasking the killer, it would seem to be through her. But in the end, to borrow the old Jim Croce song lyric, the case was like a jigsaw puzzle with a couple of pieces gone.
Profile Image for Lightreads.
641 reviews520 followers
December 28, 2008
A very thorough recounting of the Zodiac killings and the long investigation, told by a newspaper cartoonist who became obsessed with the case and involved with the major players. Graysmith lays out the known facts, reproduces the full text of the Zodiac letters for the first time, and conducts his own investigations of the major suspects.

Man. I’d forgotten, but this is a hell of a story. It reminds me not to be too hard on a lot of thrillers and cop shows, because in fact you cannot make this shit up.

Anyway. A deeply compelling book, which owes more to the story it tells than to Graysmith’s writing. I mean, give the man credit – it’s thorough and factual and generally free of bullshit. But every once in a while, as if he just can’t take all that calm intellectualism for another second, Graysmith breaks out into some rampantly emogothic speculation about what Zodiac felt like as he wrote one of his letters, or spits out a line like, “and the dark hunter kept thrusting.” Not that the sexualized violence isn’t appropriate, because it is, but really.

Graysmith is generally moderated and thoughtful in his speculations and theories, but he’s just so close to the case that he occasionally pops out some frankly laughable idea that gives significance to the vaguest coincidence (OMG, the map Zodiac used was made by a manufacturer whose name sounds like the surname of the father of one of the victims! OMG!) And when I say something is outlandishly fictional in the context of Zodiac, I mean it’s pretty freaking unbelievable.

It’s a great book, though, and Graysmith is right to be proud of this first and most thorough collection of the facts (not to mention his pretty impressive personal work, up to and including cracking one of the Zodiac’s nastier ciphers). Absolutely worth it, if this is your thing.
Profile Image for Trudi.
615 reviews1,404 followers
October 27, 2008
I don't think you can watch the film adaptation and remain unmoved by Graysmith's story and his obsessive quest to uncover the identity of the Zodiac killer. There was no question that I had to read his book. Graysmith was a cartoonist by occupation, not a journalist, and it shows. He makes the number one blunder of any amateur writer of either fiction or non-fiction -- he tries to include every last detail. Graysmith's obsession with the Zodiac killer means every minutiae of the case is deemed critical. As a reader, you're completely snowballed by facts and circumstances. I'm not a fan of police procedurals anyway, so this proved to be a bit much for me. Watch the movie; it's quite excellent.
Profile Image for Tyler  Bell.
181 reviews38 followers
November 1, 2022
3/5 Stars

Thrilling and engaging to follow, but wasn't overall satisfied

This was an interesting and in depth investigation of the Zodiac murders that happened in California in the 60's and 70's.

I liked how Graysmith actually got in touch with some of the survivors, as well as the victims family/closest friends to get information on the killer.

I did find it became more and more complicated and messy in how the story was told, as well as witnessing some awful decisions that authorities were making made me frustrated. With all of the possible suspects abd changing counties within California, it became a bit difficult to follow.

I do think it's worth the read, especially since Graysmith was working at the SF Chronicle (which the Zodiac killer sent his letters to) during this time. But also be wary of the author's biases while reading
Profile Image for Gary.
327 reviews196 followers
March 5, 2018
Movie, Director's cut was great......I saw it first....but the book goes into a lot more details about the cryptic messages...and the process of decoding...shows them all.....POE would have been proud......and goes into a lot more details of the thinking of the criminal mind,and the thinking of the investigator......I thought it was interesting that Armistead Maupin got involved, being a columnist for the Chronicle......I don't remember that detail in the film, or maybe I missed it......

Anyway the read was, engaging, fascinating on how one's mind works from both sides.....I really recommend this one.
Profile Image for Ryan Taylor.
6 reviews2 followers
January 15, 2017
I only want to say that despite the cynicism I've gotten from friends, or the criticisms I read of this one, it is a great book that is uniquely interesting and thrilling and sparked great conversation around the board.
Profile Image for Chris Gordon.
178 reviews8 followers
July 19, 2018
The Zodiac killings of the late '60s and '70s were some of the most notorious unsolved murders in the history of crime, comparable only to the Jack the Ripper murders before it. Not only were the murders gruesome in their own right, but behind these slaughters was a psychotic genius who managed to evade capture by the police up until this very day. His taunting and braggadocious letters to the police and newspapers of California are legendary, having been dissected and studied by investigators for decades, to no avail – all the while serving as inspiration for would-be killers to imitate through their own crime-sprees. The Zodiac case has inspired many to try to figure out who exactly committed these vicious killings along with deducing the motivation behind it all. One such amateur sleuth was Robert Graysmith, a cartoonist for the San Fransisco Chronicle, who managed to compile one of the most in-depth, extensive, and gripping accounts of the Zodiac killer in written form.

In Graysmith's Zodiac, we get detailed information on every confirmed murder committed by the Zodiac killer, as well as the investigations that followed. Additionally, we are introduced to all the possible murders that fit his modus operandi; he frequently claimed to have killed more people than any tangible evidence would suggest, therefore the murders that could have possibly been the work of the Zodiac were included in this account so as to allow the reader to determine for themselves whether or not there are any plausible correlations. Graysmith frequently engages the reader by asking questions about the murders as he goes along, and he provides an abundance of information to let us think for ourselves about the man behind the killings. At multiple times throughout my reading, I found myself trying to piece together several of the clues presented to come up with my own theories on the case just for fun. The book does a very good job at avoiding monotony by presenting the details in an interesting and alluring manner that is both entertaining as well as interactive all at once.

Graysmith conducts interviews with the police and surviving victims of the Zodiac and supplements their testimonials with incredible research. Everyone, from responding officers and the most dedicated detectives on the case to the victims of Zodiac's attacks and mere passersby who only momentarily glanced at a potential killer, has their voices heard in this book. One account by a survivor stood out to me in particular: a stabbing survivor recounts having a civil conversation with an oddly calm and composed Zodiac killer, who only moments later completely transformed into a demonic butcher that took one life and left the other hanging by a thread. Of all the detail given on the Zodiac killer, I felt that this entry was the most revealing and haunting, as it painted a clear image of a terrifyingly composed yet unhinged mass murderer who truly can be just about anyone, unsuspected from the public eye. I also felt that the interviews with the lead investigators were very telling of the sheer magnitude of the Zodiac's impact and presence in California at the time. If the police were fearful of this guy and had no idea who he was, then I could barely fathom just how petrified the citizens of San Fransisco had to be.

Included in the book are the letters and cryptograms that the Zodiac sent to the newspapers to taunt investigators and brag about his crimes, some of which were being reproduced for the first time in print (obviously not a big deal now with the advent of the internet, but at the time of its publication, this was monumental). We get a firsthand look at the inner workings of the Zodiac's meticulous and ardent attempts to lure and deceive the police with threats to kill children and promises to reveal his name through confounding and esoteric ciphers. Seeing these handwritten letters for the first time adds a layer of reality to the whole case; not only are the letters unsettling, they are also quite marvelous to behold. Every detail in the letters had a purpose and meaning – whether it be a mysterious symbol or a blatantly misspelled word, every component had been a calculated move on the Zodiac's part to flaunt his perceived superiority over his victims and the police.

Not only does Graysmith talk about the indisputable facts of the case, he also gives his own educated and very well researched impressions of the Zodiac's profile. He discusses the possible motives of the killings and the significance of the times at which they were executed. His theory on the murder dates coinciding with seasonal solstices and equinoxes was particularly interesting given the Zodiac's inclination to kill during or close to these times of the year. I also found it exemplary of him to reenact some of the traveled routes and actions of the Zodiac so as to account for the times at which the sequence of events took place (something the police did not even consider trying). Graysmith's hunch regarding the real identity of the Zodiac is a rather compelling presumption, one that is backed by heaps of coincidences that seem just as good, if not better, than any of the physical evidence ever compiled by the police. All the signs point to this one particular guy, but because of technicalities in the law, he was never picked up on any suspicion to the Zodiac case, which is a shame because it looks like all signs point to this one individual. Graysmith is adamant in his belief that this man is the real Zodiac killer, but all he can do is speculate along with the reader.

Admittedly, the book can get dry at times. After all, the book relies heavily on the technical details of an unsolved criminal case and must include even the most minuscule specifics so as to thoroughly and honestly present the Zodiac case in its entirety. Though Zodiac may be hard to get through for readers who are accustomed to nonstop excitement, I can safely say that those with a more patient disposition with regards to their reading will overlook these flat moments in narrative and still manage to greatly enjoy the book.

Overall, Zodiac is well written, expertly researched, fascinating, and wholly engaging. The mystery of one of America's most sinister serial killers is relayed perfectly in this book, and it acts as a great starting point for anyone interested in learning about these unsolved crimes in excruciating detail. Though you may be disappointed in the lack of a conclusion to the Zodiac investigation, you will not be disappointed in the quality and value of this book.
Profile Image for David.
827 reviews27 followers
February 23, 2018
The crimes themselves are fascinating. I cannot say the same for this book. Perhaps it’s because I read it on the heels of an exquisitely written true-crime story.
Profile Image for Barbara K..
376 reviews67 followers
April 18, 2019
It is difficult for me to understand how this book has gone through multiple printings and is still being sold. Presumably the readers are people fascinated with these unsolved murders from 50 years ago and drawn in by the promise of never-before-available details. Unfortunately the book is so poorly written that I had to force myself to finish it (and then only because the "Z" title fit nicely into a current reading challenge).

Other reviewers have complained about the amount of detail Graysmith includes, but IMO that's not the problem. It's the wretched writing! Much of the book alternates between police-blotter-like recreations of events, and descriptions of the author's efforts at detective work (for which he frequently applauds himself, albeit sometimes putting the words of praise into the mouths of other individuals).

I found myself wondering more than once why the publisher hadn't forced Graysmith to submit to an editor with a well-sharpened blue pencil. This selection from page 2 is typical of his graceless efforts at description: "He put his Timex wristwatch with chrome case and band on his left wrist, and shoved a dollar and fifty-five cents, all in change, in his right front pants pocket. He pocketed a white handkerchief and a small bottle of Binaca breath drops." Seriously? He put his wrist watch on his wrist and pocketed items in his pockets? Sheesh!

With so many wonderful true crime writers at work, it's unfortunate that this admittedly fascinating case was left to a cartoonist who happened to be at the right place and time. (No general criticism of the writing of political cartoonists intended - Tom Toles certainly excels at both.) But just because you work at a newspaper clearly does not mean you can write!
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