In my last review, of Bind, Torture, Kill: The Inside Story of the Serial Killer Next Door, Mrs. Smith recommended that I check this book out. I picked it up the next day. So, thanks Mrs. Smith for the recommendation.
First things first, I ended up enjoying this book quite a bit. Setting aside the conclusions he comes to, there’s a pretty good story here. Gary Stewart was abandoned as a baby, but was soon adopted by a great couple who raised him in a stable Christian household full of love. At the age of 39, his birth mother contacted him, and this set him on a quest to find out who his mysterious father was.
What he found is in the title of the book, so I guess I don’t really have to worry about spoilers. Gary Stewart thinks his father, Earl Van Best, Jr. was the Zodiac killer.
Taken at face value, it’s a pretty compelling argument. And there are a number of reasons to be intrigued by the claim.
To begin with, Earl Van Best, Jr did appear to resemble the police sketch of the Zodiac.
He was also the right age (born in 1934; the Zodiac was purported to be in his 30s or early 40s), and had reddish-brown hair, also like the Zodiac. Best was intelligent, obsessed with the Mikado (which the Zodiac talked about in one of his letters), an opera by Gilbert and Sullivan. He was raised by a father who was an intelligence officer during WWII, so he had a good understanding of ciphers, and had a huge ego. He also was an anglophile, affecting a British accent to impress people, and there was some speculation that the Zodiac may have been English (do to word choice in his letters). Best had a checkered criminal history, but was a free man during all of the murders (and lived or traveled through all the areas in which Zodiac murders were committed).
This doesn’t really point to Best being the Zodiac, but he kind of Forrest Gump’d his way through the mid-20th century. He lived with an English Earl as a teen, and attended the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. He attended high school with Bill Bixby, and was good friends with him. He also befriended Anton Levy, author of the Satanic Bible, and frequented his temple (though he was never a member of the Church of Satan). He occasionally jammed with Bobby Beausoleil, he of Manson Family infamy.
There are no clear fingerprints from the Zodiac, but there are for Earl Van Best Jr (thanks to his criminal record). There is an apparent scar for both, however, and they seem to match up. Stewart’s birth mother (and, allegedly, the woman whose scorn drove Best to commit these crimes) also seems to have looked remarkably like a number of the female victims of the Zodiac.
But the most damning piece of evidence Stewart provides (apart from a not insignificant amount of circumstantial evidence), is that Earl Van Best, Jr’s name can be found in the “My Name Is…” cipher that the Zodiac mailed in November of 1969.
I mean….no one has been able to make sense of this cipher. Is it possible that there is no hidden message? Could he have simply written his name backwards, one letter per column? Could it really be that simple?
But once you get passed the surface correlations, there really isn’t anything here. Best never claimed to be the Zodiac, and there are no witnesses to even tie him to the crime scenes. Yeah, he had a pretty tough childhood, with a neglectful father and indifferent mother. And, yeah, he was a shitty husband (was abusive to all three of his wives, one of whom was only 14) and terrible father (he abandoned Stewart, but also had no interest in his other children). And he lived in and around San Francisco in the late-1960s and early 1970s…….but these things can all be said of a lot of people.
And the supposed resemblance of Judy Chandler (Stewart’s birth mother) to the Zodiac victims? Well….
I don’t think the author’s mother particularly resembles any of the female Zodiac victims. Yet Stewart contends that the very reason his father targeted these women is because they reminded him of Judy, his second wife.
I think, ultimately, what we have here is a guy looking for a reason to write off his deadbeat father. The man absconded with his mother (who was 14 at the time, while he was 27), abandoned in him in a stairwell, and then died before he, Stewart, could get closure. He then used a passing resemblance to a sketch of the Zodiac (which may or may not even be accurate) and the rough mirror of his father’s life to the timeline of the Zodiac killer to sell a book and get a little notoriety for himself.
I don’t particularly think Stewart is lying. I think he probably does believe his father is the Zodiac killer. But I also think that’s part of the problem. His father might possibly have been a serial killer. But there isn’t nearly enough here to emphatically state (over and over) that Earl Van Best Jr is absolutely, definitively, the Zodiac Killer.
He was an asshole who knew about ciphers, and lived in the right area, at the right time, and was the right age and general appearance.
And his name shows up in the cipher that no one can crack which purports to reveal the Zodiac’s name. There is that….
Do I believe Best is the Zodiac? No. Not really. But it is an interesting theory, at least. I give it 3.5 stars.
I would like to comment on the overall style of the book. The first, I don’t know, third of the book (or so) is told in a novelized style as a kind of bildungsroman of his father’s life. There’s no denying that Stewart (and Mustafa) were able to learn a great deal about Best’s life. But there were also incalculable moments that left me wondering how much of what they included was pure, unadulterated fantasy. There was much (especially dialogue) that I don’t believe the authors could’ve learned about their subject. It made for a good yarn, but I’d have to categorize it as historical fiction.
With that said, Best’s early life reminded me a bit of Voldemort. So I’ll round it up to 4 stars because it made me think of Harry Potter.