September 27 marks the date when—over half a century ago—the Zodiac Killer carried out one of his most infamous attacks. On that fateful afternoon in 1969, Cecelia Shepard and Bryan Hartnell were lying on the shore of Lake Berryessa when a man wearing a black executioner's-type hood approached them. He held the couple at gunpoint, bound them in clothesline, and savagely stabbed them.
Cecelia Shepard died from her wounds. However, in spite of the viciousness of the attack, Hartnell survived, becoming one of the few witnesses to have ever seen the elusive Zodiac Killer and lived to tell the tale. Shepard and Hartnell were neither the first victims of the Zodiac nor the last. From the late 1960s to the early 1970s, he stalked the region around San Francisco, taunting the police with cryptic letters and threats sent to newspapers.
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The Zodiac Killer was never caught, and remains one of the most terrifying and electrifying cold cases in modern memory. The unidentified killer’s reign of terror has been the subject of numerous books and films, including Dirty Harry, which hit theaters in the early years of the investigation, as well as Zodiac, a 2007 film directed by David Fincher.
While several of the tales inspired by the Zodiac Killer veer far from the established facts, these 10 true crime books aim to peel back the many layers of the investigation and expose the truth behind one of America’s most notorious killers—whose real name is still unknown.
The Case of the Zodiac Killer
For the first season of their popular Criminology true crime podcast, hosts Michael Morford and Michael Ferguson took a deep dive into the history, the lore, the facts, and the myths of the Zodiac Killer. Now, all of their documentation and research can be found in this exhaustive book, which includes a transcript of the entire podcast, as well as additional commentary, photographs, and first-hand documents pertaining to one of the most notorious cold cases in true crime history.
The basis for David Fincher’s movie of the same name, if there is a single ur-text on the Zodiac Killer case, it might just be Robert Graysmith’s bestselling book. Graysmith was a political cartoonist at the San Francisco Chronicle when the Zodiac killings began, and his obsession with the case led him to tirelessly pursue answers long after the authorities had given up. In this book, he recounts not merely the events surrounding the murders—painting a portrait of a city gripped by fear—but of his continued efforts to crack the case, and his theories about the killer’s identity.
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After the success of his first book, Robert Graysmith went on to pursue a new career as a true crime writer, but he wouldn’t return to the case that made him famous until the 2002 release of Zodiac Unmasked. This follow-up book drills down all of Graysmith’s theories about the identity of the notorious killer. It’s worth a look for those interested in the case, as it includes complete reproductions of all of the known letters sent by the Zodiac Killer.
The Most Dangerous Animal of All
When adoptee Gary L. Stewart went looking for his birth father, he wasn’t sure what he would discover…but he definitely didn’t expect to find out that his father was a suspect in one of America’s most notorious serial killer cases. In this gripping, New York Times bestselling book that is equal parts personal memoir and true crime odyssey, Stewart, along with award-winning journalist Susan Mustafa, details the search for his father that became a hunt for a killer—and an effort to grapple with a terrible legacy of violence.
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The End of the Zodiac Mystery
Picking up where The Most Dangerous Animal of All leaves off, this book by handwriting expert Michael Wakshull attempts to use forensic evidence to solve the case and to prove, once and for all, the identity of the Zodiac Killer. While Wakshull’s handwriting and other forensic analyses have been contradicted by other experts, watching the process by which he comes to his conclusions is fascinating, even if you don’t ultimately accept his case for the killer’s identity.
"This is the Zodiac Speaking"
Most books about the Zodiac Killer are all about solving the crime by positing a specific suspect and making the case that he was the killer. This book, by “violence expert” Michael Kelleher and psychologist David Van Nuys, is after something else. The two authors want to create a profile of the Zodiac Killer, to try to offer some insight into why he committed such terrible and inexplicable acts. To do so, they analyze countless police records, crime scene evidence, and the killer’s handwritten letters in this gripping book.
Turns out that Gary L. Stewart wasn’t the first person to come to the conclusion that his father may have been the Zodiac Killer. Years earlier, former LAPD detective Steve Hodel had dug into his own late father’s history, learning that he was one of the chief suspects in the Black Dahlia murder. In Most Evil, Hodel lays out the case that his father may have not only been the Black Dahlia killer, but also the Zodiac, “a deeply disturbed man who viewed murder as a form of art.” Hodel’s hypothesis may stretch credulity, but there’s no arguing that his conclusions are stark and unsettling.
Author Glenn Wall was investigating another high-profile unsolved murder—that of Valerie Percy, an Illinois senator’s daughter who was beaten and stabbed to death in her bed in 1966—when he began to find inexplicable clues that tied that case to another all the way across the country. In this book, Wall lays out the argument that the man who slew Valerie Percy and the Zodiac Killer are one and the same—and he goes one step further to posit that the perpetrator was the bloodthirsty son of a multimillionaire whose money helped him get away with murder.
The Zodiac Killer
“If not for the ominous shadow of Jack the Ripper, the case of the Zodiac Killer would perhaps be the greatest mystery the world has ever known.” So begins the back cover copy of this ambitious book, which attempts to bring together as many of the clues, leads, and theories as to the Zodiac Killer’s identity as the author can manage, all housed within one relatively slim volume.
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The Myth of the Zodiac Killer
Less a book on its own than a response to Robert Graysmith’s bestselling Zodiac, this volume takes aim at Graysmith’s book—and, indeed, the man himself—and attempts to claim that not only is Graysmith’s book a hoax, but the actual murders were, too. Or, rather, that our idea of the Zodiac Killer as a single person, rather than a string of unrelated murders committed by different individuals, is flawed. While this is another claim that stretches credulity, it certainly showcases the vast interpretations of the evidence surrounding the mysterious Zodiac killings.
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