Book Review: Zodiac Unmasked by Robert Graysmith

Zodiac Unmasked
by Robert Graysmith
Copyright 2002
Berkley Books
433 pages

Rating: 5.5/10

Summary: Graysmith follows his 1986 book Zodiac with Zodiac Unmasked, in which he purports to reveal the identity of the killer. Unmasked is an entertaining book, but Graysmith cannot provide definitive proof of Zodiac’s identity.

Review: During the late-1960s and early-1970s a murder spree by the Zodiac killer terrorized northern California. The case was especially bizarre in that the Zodiac taunted police in encrypted letters and wore a hooded “executioner’s outfit” during some of his crimes. The Zodiac was never caught.

During this time, Robert Graysmith worked as an editorial cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle, which received several of The Zodiac’s letters. Graysmith became obsessed with the case and – after ten years of research – published Zodiac in 1986. Few true crime books are better than the original Zodiac.

The Return of The Zodiac – and Graysmith

In the original Zodiac, Graysmith discusses his best suspect, but identifies the suspect under a pseudonym. In Zodiac Unmasked, Graysmith uses the suspect’s real name – Arthur Leigh Allen. Since the publication of Graysmith’s first book, Allen had died and his death opened the way for Graysmith to name him as the suspect.

In Unmasked, Graysmith spends over 400 pages trying to prove Allen guilty. (The book also contains extensive appendices). However, while there is evidence to suggest that Allen may, in fact, have been the Zodiac –  there is no definitive proof. Thus, the reader leaves the book with many unanswered questions, not the least of which is whether Graysmith has falsely accused Allen.

A Life Gone Awry

One good thing about Unmasked is that Allen is interesting, even if he wasn’t the Zodiac. Born in Honolulu in 1933, he was the son of a U.S. Navy pilot. In high school in Vallejo, California, Allen was a champion diver who seemed headed for a prosperous future. However, according to Graysmith, behind closed doors the Allen family was bitterly unhappy.

Nonetheless, after high school, Leigh continued to college, served in the Navy, and eventually became a school teacher. In his spare time, he was a rugged outdoorsman who loved scuba diving, racing cars, and hunting. Appearances, however, were deceiving. Allen lost most of his teaching jobs due to inappropriate relationships with his students and soon his life began to spiral downward.

By the time of the Zodiac killings, Allen had fallen into the pattern that he would follow until his 1992 death. Highly intelligent, Allen was a professional student, who earned several degrees, and spent much of his spare time hunting and “collecting” the animals that he killed. During this time, his personal and professional lives were a mess; he had no, known romantic relationships with adults and worked only low-end jobs, such as clerking at a hardware store. Most damningly, he continued his inappropriate relationships with children; after pleading guilty to molesting a child, Allen spent two years in prison in Atascadero, California.

If nothing else, Unmasked is an interesting story of a promising life gone awry.

Was Arthur Leigh Allen (left three pictures) The Zodiac killer? You can't prove it based on Robert Graysmith's (far right picture) Zodiac Unmasked.

Everything But the Kitchen Sink

Unfortunately, as the 5.5/10 rating indicates, I am lukewarm on Unmasked. My primary objection is one of fairness; while Allen was a flawed, dangerous person, Graysmith does not prove him guilty of the Zodiac killings.

There are other problems with the book. Graysmith badly needed an editor; apparently, he got so close to his subject that he couldn’t resist throwing in all sorts of extraneous material. For example, when Allen died he left a detailed series of instructions on how to access his computer files. Graysmith quotes the entire note, which is – indeed – a dry discussion of how to open computer files. A good editor would have cut about 100 pages from the text.

The book’s format is chronological, and, therefore, it reads something like a diary. There are boldfaced headings throughout Unmasked and they help the reader keep track of the timeline. At times, this format can hurt the flow of the story, as Graysmith reports on the many unfruitful discussions that he had with police about the case.


If you want to read about The Zodiac case, start with Graysmith’s first book; it’s terrific and this case fascinates. If you want to know more, try Unmasked. Unmasked is pretty good, but the reader walks away with many unanswered questions.


About mobilemojoman

I have been a Mobile resident for about a decade. Working as a college professor keeps me off the streets and pays the bills. I am married to a woman (the MojoWoman) who is a much better person than I am and we have two beautiful girls who keep us both jumping. My interests are varied - food & drink, sports, politics, exercise, books, travel, Mardi Gras, and all of life's rich pageant. In the future, I'd like to learn more about sailing, photography, Cajun/Creole cooking, making beer and wine, and writing.
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