Monday, November 30, 2020

The Zodiac Killer

The Zodiac Killer, by Jerry Weissman
December, 1979  Pinnacle Books 

About the only thing that could’ve made this cover more tacky is if they’d put “From the publisher of The Penetrator!” on it. But boy, it turns out the best thing about The Zodiac Killer is the cover, because otherwise Jerry Weissman has taken one of the most infamous serial killers of all time and turned him into a bumbling clod who literally starts killing because girls won’t give him the time of day. As if that weren’t enough, whereas the Zodiac of reality almost seemed like a comic book supervillain come to life (complete even with a costume!), the one of the novel goes about his murders in clumsy fashion – almost nothing is premeditated, while the real Zodiac seemed to be all about the premeditation. 

I’m not an expert on the Zodiac Killer, but I suspect this book is rife with errors; Weissman prefaces the novel by saying that names, dates, and even locations have been altered from reality to protect the innocent. Oh yeah, a curious thing about this book is that it opens with blurbs from directors: no less than Richard “Superman” Donner gives it a sterling endorsement, as does Blaxploitation director Melvin van Peebles(!?). I guess Weissman must’ve had some Hollywood connections or experience; I’m honestly too lazy to look it up. I’m also assuming he was aiming for a more upmarket publisher, and not a paperback imprint that would put such a hilariously tacky cover on his book. (To tell the truth it took me a few minutes to even notice those eyes on the cover; for some reason my attention was rooted elsewhere.) But hell, if this book had been published a few years earlier, maybe some low-rent production company would’ve bought the rights and made a film out of it, a la the 1974 The Zebra Killer (which now that I think of it was a film about a serial killer that had a Blaxploitation vibe to it…given that the serial killer went around in blackface!). 

An interesting gimmick about the novel is that for the most part the protagonist is the Zodiac Killer himself – Robert Bennett, an introverted loser who when we meet him in 1966 is an Air Force cadet in Redlands, California. The other main protagonist of the novel is Paula Avery, a young journalist in San Francisco; per Weissman’s intro, Paula is of course based on real-life journalist Paul Avery, who covered the murders at the time and ultimately became a target of Zodiac himself. (In David Fincher’s well-done 2007 movie Zodiac, Avery was played by Robert Downey, Jr, cast against type as an egocentric smartass.) Bennett though is the character who makes the narrative happen, but he is a pale reflection of the real Zodiac; Weissman claims that he based the book on the facts, gleaning info from Avery himself and coming to his own conclusions on who Zodiac might’ve been. I almost got the impression that he wanted to whittle Zodiac down, and show that, instead of the cold, calculating killer of urban legend, he was in reality a goofball who got by more on luck than by guile. 

Bennett as mentioned is a bit of a loser, and he’s envious of his fellow cadets who can pick up chicks with ease at the local college. On this night in ’66 Bennett tags along on the latest “poon cruise” and tries to score with a couple college girls, but gets shot down relentlessly. He’s particularly focused on pretty young Bunny, but she tells him to buzz off. Bennett lurks around until night and fixes her car so she won’t be able to drive it. When Bunny comes out of class to find her car not working, Bennett materializes out of the shadows to offer her a ride. She’s grateful, but realizes it’s a setup when Bennett starts pawing at her chest. Bunny puts up a helluva fight, just about beating the shit out of pudgy creep Bennett. Until he whips out a knife and guts her. Now feeling like a big man, Bennett flees back to base and congratulates himself that he’s “not a chickenshit.” 

This is Bennett’s first kill, and the beginning of what will become the Zodiac legend. As mentioned there’s absolutely no premediation involved; Bennett we’re informed didn’t even go there planning to kill Bunny. It was only because she fought him so savagely. Also, the Zodiac was infamous for his letters and his ciphers. In the novel, these too are spur-of-the-moment things. That night Bennett, apropos of nothing, writes down a poetic diatribe about his first kill, and decides to send it to the local paper, basically just for the hell of it. Again, the idea I get is that Weissman throughout tries to show that Zodiac’s seeming omnipotence was really more just public perception, how it all could’ve been the result of a guy who merely fumbled through things. Fine so far as theories go, I guess, but it makes for an unsatisfying novel; Robert Bennett is more Mr. Bean than Hannibal Lecter. 

To make it worse, Bennett’s kills still all amount to “jilted lover” motives throughout the rest of the novel. We flash forward to 1968 and Bennett’s now in San Francisco, after a brief desk job in ‘Nam. Any hope that he was in intelligence or learned ciphers or coding or anything are quickly dashed; his position had more to do with filing paperwork, and later we learn that he did sort of learn about coding, but just from seeing some of the reports come across his desk. Well now he’s in San Francisco and he’s a…cable car conductor. That’s the Zodiac’s day job, folks. Also, he’s not the Zodiac yet, and you guessed it – his decision to take this name is again based upon happenstance and spur-of-the-moment decision-making. Bennett lives a lonely life; he has a spartanly-furnished apartment and walks to work, and meanwhile the twelve-year old kid next door idolizes him, which Bennett doesn’t realize – a curious subplot that goes nowhere. 

Bennett, still trying in vain to score, meets up with a hippie girl and hopes she’s zonked enough that he can get some easy sex from her. But even she bails on him when Bennett’s unable to rise to the occasion; of course, the subtext here is that Bennett is gay and so far in the closet that he’s willing to lash out at women who “deny” him. Well anyway this hippie chick gives Bennett some angel dust, and he goes fullbore nuts from it. In fact he suspects the drug’s what keeps him from rising to the aforementioned occasion. But the hippie chick takes off and Bennett’s once again left to seethe in rage. Next he tries to date a teen named Mary Ann, who seems to like him but feels she’s too young; Bennett stalks her, sees her going out with a guy her age, and follows them. He shoots both of them as they sit in a car on a lover’s lane. 

Another interesting gimmick about The Zodiac Killer is that all the kills occur off-page. This murder comes to the attention of Paula Avery, a journalist based on real-life Paul Avery, only given, per Weissman in his afterword, “a literary sex-change.” Paula’s in a relationship with a cop and she’s trying to make her big journalism break. She works for the Chronicle, and initially she’s covering Nixon’s run and later covers other events in the city. She has her own share of the narrative, and it takes a while before she even covers the Zodiac stuff. But she’s drawn to it on her own, and also will be the first person to tie in the unsolved ’66 murder in the Redlands with Zodiac’s kills here in the San Francisco area. 

Bennett meanwhile sees the murders mentioned in the paper, and begins writing oddball letters and threats. Weissman leaves too much of his stuff unexplored. Like we’re told Bennett has a special, apparently custom-made .22 pistol which he uses for his killings. At any rate we next flash forward to the summer of ’69 and Bennett’s latest target is a waitress he’s been stalking, who has shunned his advances. She too is killed off-page. Paula, covering the moon landing, moves on to these strange new killings, publishing more pieces in the paper and coming more to Bennett’s attention. But curiously Bennett hasn’t even “become” Zodiac yet; once again it’s all due to coincidence, as he runs into a hippie street preacher named Cyrus, who goes on about the power of “the Self.” Cyrus’s cosmonogy is right along the lines of Bennett’s own, and here he starts appropriating the zodiac stuff – again, thanks to a book Cyrus gave him. 

Cyrus also gets Benett interested in ciphers – we’re told here of his passing familiarity with them, from paperwork in ‘Nam – and he starts working on some. They’re faithfully reproduced in the text, but even this stuff is rendered goofy, with Bennett chucking “Perfect!” to himself as he tries to master the complexities of cipher-creating. I mean the guy’s such a clod. And the helluva it is, he doesn’t even seem evil, something that’s doubly conveyed by the fact that we never really see him kill anyone…save for Bunny in the beginning, and that was presented almost as a mistake. His letters and ciphers all come off like desperate attempts to seem like a big man…which again could’ve been for real, but makes the book seem more like A Confederacy Of Dunces with a serial killer overlay. What I’m trying to say is, Robert Bennett just isn’t believable; he’d get caught quickly and easily. 

Most surprising is the Lake Beryessa murder, in which Zodiac infamously appeared in costume. Again, this takes place off-page, thus denying readers of what was apparently a ritualistic or occultic murder for the Zodiac – he was under the impression he killed both the man and the woman here, thus his costume wasn’t worn to inspire fear in any survivors. But there’s no ritual drive to Bennett…he merely follows this girl who looks very much like Bunny, his first victim, and tails her and her boyfriend to the park. He takes out a bag he thoughtfully stashed in the car, one that contains a knife and rope, and then cuts his Navy cap so that he can pull the folds down over his face. So there’s no occult intent to the costume, no symbolism to the kill…we just flash forward to Bennett calling the cops and telling them he’s killed again. 

Eventually Bennett starts to set his sights on Paula. This leads to the sole tense sequence in the novel. Bennett stalks Paula to her houseboat, and confronts her in pitch darkness, given a blown fuse on the boat. But Paula’s no shrinking violet, and dives to the floor and starts shooting when she sees the mysterious shadow coming toward the boat. This brings her boyfriend running, but meanwhile Bennett’s already fled the scene – and pissed his pants! This folks is our diabolical supervillain. He’s more content to be the killer of unarmed victims; his last kill in the book is a taxi driver who is giving him a ride to the movies(!). This is because the radio happens to be tuned to a station in which a psychiatrist is evaluating Zodiac, how he clearly suffers from multiple issues, and the taxi driver goes on to Bennett about how Zodiac is a freak and a loser. Bennett has him pull over and raises the .22…for our final off-page murder. 

The finale is complete fiction. Per Weissman the Zodiac affair ends in August of 1969. Bennett has started up a phone rapport with Paula, calling her often…even here he proves himself to be a loser, as Paula constantly talks down to him and even cuts him short at times. And Bennett gets flustered and hangs up! But anyway he offers to meet her, secretly planning of course to kill her. The meet is to take place upon some steps that lead into Greenwich Village. But as Bennett waits for Paula, he’s mugged – and gets in a fight with the mugger, and as he’s chasing the dude he runs into the guy’s knife and impales himself! Thus Robert Bennett dies, and later a “Zodiac note” is found on his body. It’s assumed, then, that Bennett, a hapless cable car conductor, is Zodiac’s latest victim, no one realizing Bennet was Zodiac, himself now a victim. 

A slapdash finale for sure, particularly given that Zodiac in reality was still appearing well into the ‘70s, at least in letters and the occasional kidnapping attempt. It’s curious that Weissman skips all this, particularly given that he published his book in 1979, five years after the last known Zodiac communication. But then it’s possible he wrote this book before all that, and only took this long to get it published – hence it coming out via paperback imprint Pinnacle. Who knows. I mean overall The Zodiac Killer was marginally entertaining, but it was undone by an unbelievable villain, and for a book labelled “horror” on the spine it certainly wasn’t very scary. 

For another novel based on the Zodiac Killer, check out Fringe: The Zodiac Paradox.

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