Friday 23 August 2019


Every now and then I indulge in a true crime book or documentary. The most recent of which was Zodiac by Robert Graysmith, who was involved with the case during his time as a political cartoonist for San Francisco Chronicle, which is one of the papers Zodiac sent letters to.

During my post-grad, I studied Forensic Linguistics. We studied cases like the Yorkshire Ripper, and how local accent helped catch him, and the Unibomber, who was brought down by his own idiolect. Each of us has a pattern of speech which is unique, like our fingerprints. That's called idiolect. The Unabomber apparently thought himself too smart to use the phrase You can't have your cake and eat it (because you can), so he used You can't eat your cake and have it (which is true, you can't). This turn of phrase was recognised by his sister-in-law in letters to his brother.

So, speech, language and crime is a fascinating subject, and the reason I was drawn to this.

A sexual sadist, the Zodiac killer took pleasure in torture and murder. His first victims were a teenage couple, stalked and shot dead in a lovers’ lane. After another slaying, he sent his first mocking note to authorities, promising he would kill more. The official tally of his victims was six. He claimed thirty-seven dead. The real toll may have reached fifty.

Robert Graysmith was on staff at the San Francisco Chronicle in 1969 when Zodiac first struck, triggering in the resolute reporter an unrelenting obsession with seeing the hooded killer brought to justice. In this gripping account of Zodiac’s eleven-month reign of terror, Graysmith reveals hundreds of facts previously unreleased, including the complete text of the killer’s letters.

Things I learnt:

  • E [is] the most common letter in the English language, followed in order by T, A, O, N, I, R and S. The most commonly doubled letters in English are L, E and S. The letter most commonly occurring together are TH, HE and AN. More than half of all words end in E, and more than half of all words begin with T, A, O, S or W. 
  • The most commonly doubled letter in the English Language is L (LL).
  • The most common three-letter combinations, trigrams, are THE, ING, CON and ENT.
  • During an autopsy, it's called 'penetrating' if an object, such as a bullet, enters the body but doesn't exit, and 'perforating' if it also exits. Not sure why this stuck with me - useful if I ever retrain as a coroner, perhaps.

Returning to idiolect, there was a suggestion that perhaps Zodiac was British because he used the phrases Happy Christmas and picking off the kiddies (killing the children), which works for Britain and Canada, but not so much America. Later, there's a suggestion that the term fiddle and fart around, is commonly heard among older men of Lubbock County, Texas. But I'm curious as to why that doesn't also back up the British theory, as fiddle about and fart about are common expressions in the UK. Although, fiddle and fart together, not so sure. 

Given that the guy deliberately misspelt things to throw people off the scent, it wouldn't be surprising if he also drew from colloquial speech outside his native area.

Something else I found interesting was the Zebra Murders. A racially-motivated set of murders by The Death Angels in the 1970s. Interesting purely because it's a footnote of history I had never heard of before.

There was also the suggestion that Zodiac was influenced by a 1932 film called The Most Dangerous Game. The whole thing is available online, so you can make up your own mind.

The obvious allure of Zodiac is that he was never caught, therefore the reader always has that tantalising prospect of noticing something others have missed and solving the crime. The book firmly places suspicion on  Arthur Leigh Allen, who died in 1992.

I must admit, it all seemed a bit circumstantial and bias-confirmatory, but then, I wasn't there, so don't know. Whilst looking into the case after finishing the book, I stumbled across this fascinating story, where a guy called  Gary L. Stewart tracked down his biological father, Earl Van Best Jr., who is a man with a very unfortunate resemblance to the Zodiac composite.

Stewart went on to co-orther a book called The Most Dangerous Animal of All, in which he claims his father was Zodiac.

Anyway, interesting stuff, and quite an education in deciphering ciphers.

[Update October 2021: The killer is now believed to have been a man called Gary Francis Poste.]

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