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Robert Graysmith’s Zodiac obsession
By PETER KEOUGH  |  February 28, 2007

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WHODUNIT?: Scratch Robert Graysmith off your list.

When watching a serial-killer movie, I always suspect the person investigating the case is the culprit. In David Fincher’s Zodiac, my money was on Robert Graysmith, the San Francisco Chronicle cartoonist who pressed his search for years, publishing his findings in Zodiac in 1986, the book on which the film is based. It’s always the quiet one, the one you’d least suspect, who’s guilty. At least in the movies. In real life, though, Graysmith is here in Boston promoting the movie at the Ritz-Carlton.

“I never really thought of that,” he says, when I point out that his character takes on many of the characteristics — social isolation, dwelling in a tiny space filled with the detritus of crime — of the person who becomes his prime suspect. “It’s true. That’s how I ended up. I live in a 17-foot-by-17-foot studio apartment without cable TV and with a phone that seldom works. One side of the room is boxes straight through. I’m on a third row of boxes, so it’s like the pit and the pendulum. The work is literally closing in. It’s dark and I’m up at 7 am totally immersed. But to be honest, I didn’t think I was obsessed until I saw Jake’s portrayal.”

The obsession started in 1969, when Graysmith, a wide-eyed kid from a small-town newspaper just three months at the big city paper, found himself in the editorial conference room when the first letter from Zodiac was brought in. “Because my training is in the arts and I’m very visual, I was intrigued by the fact that he used a costume [Zodiac sometimes wore a specially designed black executioner’s hood] and arcane symbols and he liked to quote movies. He had a way with language. He had his own trademark — that crossed circle. They call it the most cerebral murder case of all time. There are still ciphers that haven’t been broken.”

Besides stirring Graysmith’s artistic side, Zodiac also aroused his sense of justice. “I was a political cartoonist. In the tradition of people like Daumier who would do a cartoon attacking the king and end up in prison. I felt you could take symbols and images and make a change in the world by passing a bill or getting a guy defeated, or just getting people fired up. And it occurred to me that since this Zodiac killer was writing to our newspaper, I could do the same thing. I could put together everything that was known in this case and put it out there to the public and we could catch this guy.”

After the first book (there was a 2002 follow-up, The Zodiac Unmasked, in which Graysmith revealed the identity of the person — never apprehended, now deceased — he was convinced was Zodiac), Graysmith took his obsessiveness to different subjects. He’s published seven other books, including one on the murder of Bob Crane that Paul Schrader adapted into Auto Focus (2002). He has, he claims, passed the “torch” of the Zodiac obsession on to David Fincher: “He has found more new evidence than anybody.”

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