Title: Zodiac Unmasked: The Identity of America’s Most Elusive Serial Killer Revealed
Author: Robert Graysmith
Publisher: Berkley Books
Audiobook Narrator: Robert Graysmith
David Fincher’s Zodiac (2007) is one of my favorite films of all-time. It is one that I have always wanted to discuss on The Cinefessions Podcast, and came really close to picking it over One Hour Photo (2002) on our Criminally Underrated Arc. That has not come to pass – yet – but I do get to bring up one of the more interesting serial killer cases out there thanks to Robert Graysmith’s Zodiac Unmasked.
Unmasked will not go down as the first True Crime novel I ever bought back in high school – that title belongs to Daddy Was the Black Dahlia Murderer, a book I never read much of back then, and now, after seeing how demonstrably false it is, will likely never waste my time reading – this was definitely one of the first handful that entered my backlog. Once I saw the movie back in 2007, I knew I had to read the book, but, like most things, it remained on my to-read list for over another decade. Finally, thanks to the wonderful world of audiobooks, I can finally say that I’ve completed Robert Graysmith’s detailed account of the Zodiac Killer. Unfortunately, I cannot say that it lived up to the 15+ years of hype that I’d built for it in my own head.
The self-titled Zodiac Killer hunted the streets of Northern California in the late 1960s and early 1970s, definitively killing at least 5 young people, but claiming to have killed 37. The Zodiac would send the police taunting letters, sometimes in code, bragging about his work, and mocking their inability to stop him. Robert Graysmith, a cartoonist for The San Francisco Chronicle when Zodiac came to prominence, became obsessed with the case, likely because it was so close to home for him, and started doing what he could to help discover the identity of this depraved individual. He would spend ten years of his life researching the case, and eventually put together an account of all of his research in a book titled Zodiac: The Full Story of the Infamous Unsolved Zodiac Murders in California, which he released in 1986. This reignited the search for the Zodiac, specifically amongst amateur slueths. Though Graysmith used a fake name for the man he believed to be the Zodiac Killer in his original novel, the man’s real name, Arthur Leigh Allen, eventually came out. Allen was the suspect that police liked the most, but the evidence was considered too circumstantial to bring to trial. Allen eventually died of natural causes in 1992 before any charges could be levied against him.
Where the first Zodiac book from 1986 was a rundown of the facts of the Zodiac Killer case, this follow-up, Zodiac Unmasked, is Graysmith’s attempt to tie Leigh Allen to many of the suspected crimes of Zodiac. I likely would have been better served to read Zodiac before diving into Unmasked, but I honestly didn’t realize that the books were set up like this until late in the game. I initially though the first book was essentially the first half of Unmasked, and to a certain extent, it is, but with a lot more personal opinion of the author as he tries to point the blame to one man. He does so convincingly, and as far as I am concerned, Arthur Leigh Allen was the Zodiac Killer. There are just too many coincidences for the truth to lie elsewhere.
The issues I had with Unmaksed lie in that personal bias, though. I wanted more of the facts, and wanted to learn more about the other suspects, but instead, Graysmith all but ignores them. He touches on a few, but doesn’t do a great job of convicing the reader that they conclusively could not be the Zodiac Killer. He likely thought that the case for Allen was strong enough that this wasn’t needed, and that may be true, but as someone who was looking for a more all-inclusive take on the killings, I wanted more on this front.
Graysmith lays out a ton of facts – arguably too many in a short amount of time for many of them to be memorable – and does what he can to tie them all back to Allen, no matter how loose a connection it might have. After finishing the book, and doing some additional research, it sounds like there are some factual errors in the book, but that is to be expected as we have the gift of hindsight on some of these situations. It is also clear that many people believe that Leigh Allen was nothing more than an innocent victim in this and was not, in fact, the Zodiac. That, too, is to be expected as anyone who has ever done any research in the true crime genre knows that no matter how much evidence one has to point to, there will always be another group that says, “yes, but…”, and the debate can continue forever. That’s just the way things are in this genre. Neither of these are reasons to avoid Zodiac Unmasked, just points that are important to address when discussing Graysmith’s arguably controversial book.
I do have to mention that Graysmith was the narrator of this audiobook, and he does a solid job. There are points between chapters where it is clear that Graysmith is recording at a different time, perhaps even with a different microphone, or in a different location, because the tone of his voice is markedly different than it was just seconds earlier. This threw me off a little bit, but I eventually grew to expect it as I made my way through the almost eighteen hour audiobook. This is not something I’ve really noticed in other audiobooks, so if you’re easily annoyed by things like this, definitely keep that in mind when checking out the audio version of Unmasked.
For my money, I would much rather spend a couple hours with the David Fincher masterpiece then ever read through Zodiac Unmasked again. The novel is worth a read if you’re fascinated by true crime, and want to know more about one of the best suspects that the police had in Arthur Leigh Allen, but be aware that you’re only getting one side of the story. It’s also an incredibly repetitive, and overlong book. Graysmith could have made his same argument, and have made the same impact, in about half the length of this novel. The second half especially is where we see some repitition. Instead of simply mentioning some facts that he covered in the first half, he goes back into detail as if we’re recieving the information for the first time, and that just makes the book drag a bit.
Robert Graysmith’s Zodiac Unmasked is an exhaustive take on a fascinating story, but if you are looking for more of a fact-by-fact blow of the case rather than a “this is why this man is the killer”, then I would suggest looking elsewhere, likely to Graysmith’s first novel, Zodiac. I am excited I finally completed this book, but it does leave a bit to be desired.
Branden has been a film fan since he was young, roaming the halls of Blockbuster Video, trying to find the grossest, scariest looking VHS covers to rent and watch alone in the basement. It wasn’t until recently, though, that Branden started seeking out the classics of cinema, and began to develop his true passion for the art form. Branden approaches each film with the unique perspective of having studied the art from the inside, having both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in acting. He has been a film critic since 2010, and has previously written for Inside Pulse Movies, We Love Cult, and Diehard Gamefan. His biggest achievement as a film critic, to date, has been founding Cinefessions and turning it from a personal blog to a true film website, housing hundreds of film and television reviews, and dozens of podcasts.