Book Review Travel

Jarett Kobek & the Zodiac Killer (Motor Spirit & The Hunt for Zodiac)

two new books from Jarett Kobek about CRIME CRIME CRIME

April 16th, 2022, Toronto, 12.15pm

Jarett Kobek is one of those writers who is under-read.

His massively acclaimed early novel I Hate The Internet is a meta-textual masterpiece, arguably the last great postmodern American novel. I say arguably, but I don’t know who is arguing that… maybe me? Maybe no one else. Either way, it’s great!

As well as I Hate The Internet, Kobek has published quite a few other texts, including a vibey looking Penguin-published novel called The Future Won’t Be Long (which I have a copy of but haven’t read),and ATTA, a short work published by America’s best Gen X indie publisher, Semiotext(e) (which I have ordered a copy of but haven’t yet received. Or read.)

Why am I opening this post about murder, madness, investigation and revelation in such a tedious manner?

In part, it is because that is the way Kobek left me feeling by the time I’d trawled through the repetitious detail of the second of his two new books (or second volume of a singular work?) about the Zodiac killer, in which Kobek provides such a massive volume of damning circumstantial evidence that it’s hard to disagree with his conclusions: the Zodiac killer was a man named Paul Doerr, who died in 2007 and, like basically all of the other possible suspects in the Zodiac case, definitely got 100% away with the murders if he was the person who did them.

What are the facts in this case?

A person who called themself “Zodiac” existed, the person using this name definitely killed some people and definitely sent some weird letters to the press and police: this is all we know.

Whoever he was, he got away with it.

Is the truth worth pursuing this far after the fact and with any possibility of retribution/consequence for the perpetrator impossible due to death? Kobek, along with many other people, believes so, and in these two books (or two volumes of one book), Kobek makes a compelling case to back this idea up. At least, he does while one remains within the book’s pages and its potent grip…

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April 19th – April 20th, 2022, trains via Switzerland from Paris to Florence, then in Florence

It’s a few days later and I’m now on a train travelling from Paris to Basel, wherever that is. Basel is not my final destination – that will be Florence, which I am travelling to by train, leaving me sat on constantly moving transport or loitering in Central European train stations all day. 

The view from the windows so far has been pretty, as I pound southwards through the French countryside.

I continue thinking, tho, about Kobek and his writing, even tho I’m now an ocean and a continent away from the setting of these crimes (and also my copies of these books).

In the interim, I watched the rather beige 2007 David Fincher movie, Zodiac, which doesn’t once mention Paul Doerr, the man Kobek seems to have pretty irrefutably proven to be the actual killer/sender of strange letters.

Kobek’s two new books are both released by “We Heard You Like Books”, a small indie that, much like TRUTHER PRESS, seems only to sell its books directly from Amazon using that sinister corporation’s terrifyingly easy print on demand service, KDM.

I don’t think We Heard You Like Books is Kobek’s own [side?-]project, but there’s definitely a part of me that doesn’t understand why these two volumes – Motor Spirit and The Hunt for Zodiac – are published in this manner, rather than by a more traditional/prominent publisher. This seems like a good gamble for a publisher: people love true crime, and as a historic, formally “unsolved” crime that will never be definitively wrapped up with material proofs, the Zodiac killings remain, and likely will remain, a “fan favourite”.

Motor Spirit in particular seems like it could become hugely successful: it’s a broad-strokes introduction to the killings and the letters, as well as the investigations into them and – most importantly, I think – the legacy these crimes have had on the public and the creative consciousness of the USA.

One of the reasons, I think, that these murders remain popular in the zeitgeist is their particular level of creepiness. Obviously, stabbing and shooting arbitrary people to death is reprehensible and cruel and has no place in supportive and progressive societies, but the circumstances of these violent acts are far less horrific than the equivalent crimes of e.g. Ted Bundy.

In the murders attributed to Zodiac, there was no (physical) torture, no sexual assault, there were just random acts of violence (a quintessential American thing) accompanied by a puzzle, a code. This might not be a “family friendly” murder spree, but it’s maybe as close as one can get.

Zodiac seemed most concerned with press attention, and Kobek argues (again, persuasively) that survivors of Zodiac’s attacks describe a murderer who is really not into the act of killing: he is nervous rather than excited, he is worried rather than turned on and having the time of his life. Murderers murder for the murder, right? Yet Zodiac seemed to murder for the fame.

With a chatty, engaging and informative tone that has occasional personal digressions, Motor Spirit feels like a book with real “true crime bestseller” vibes. I say this as a complete outsider to the genre, to be honest, and maybe it is a woefully saturated market, or maybe it is the content of Kobek’s second Zodiac book, The Hunt for Zodiac, that kept this as two volumes published by a POD indie rather than one big one from Penguin Random House.

The Hunt for Zodiac is detailed. The Hunt for Zodiac is repetitive, intentionally so. It opens with an aside from Kobek (writing throughout this volume in the third person, which is kinda fun) as he looked to formally remove a name from the long list of potential Zodiacs – Paul Doerr. 

The first hit book about this case – and the main source text for David Fincher’s movie – fingers a very particular individual, called Arthur Leigh Allen, a convicted paedophile and weirdo recluse, who has no solid alibis for any of the Zodiac murders and was in jail for the longest period of no new Zodiac letters being received (during the period they were being sent) and though exonerated by handwriting analysis, Allen was allegedly ambidextrous so this is taken to mean he could have changed his handwriting at will.

There is no physical evidence linking this (tbf) evil man to the killings, but there’s also nothing to prove he didn’t do them either. There is no firm way to link that man with codes and code-writing, with communicating via letters and there’s definitely no way to find a connection between him and every single tonal, cultural and political reference made in the Zodiac’s letters. Kobek, however, is able to do this for Paul Doerr.

Kobek discovers that Doerr – not a convicted paedophile and not really a recluse – was a keen member of the fanzine community who wrote and [self-]published extensively from before the Zodiac killings and onwards for decades after the killings and letters stopped.

sketch of the Zodiac killer’s weird costume he wore one time

In Doerr’s oeuvre, Kobek finds an unsubtle (tho unspecific) confession of murder, he finds creation of codes and ciphers, he finds descriptions of bomb-making tips that are identical to threats made by the Zodiac EVEN DOWN TO THE MISTAKE THAT WOULD HAVE MADE THE BOMB INOPERABLE, he finds drawings and handwriting that is eerily similar to those of the letters, he is able to find evidence of Doerr selling and buying guns (and knives) in off-the-record deals that were already illegal by that time in America’s affair du coeur with firearms, and he also finds evidence that Doerr owned a car that matched descriptions given by Zodiac’s survivors, and – a key one – Kobek finds a reason why Doerr would have owned the bizarre costume Zodiac wore for his most brutal murder.

There’s no “smoking gun”, i.e. DNA, fingerprints or a clear, detailed confession, but there are literally hundreds of pieces of evidence provided and analysed by Kobek that combine to give a water resistant (if not water proof) case for Doerr’s guilt.

Paul Doerr is dead, as are most of the people who knew him, as are most of the other people who could have been the killer, so this is a mystery that will never be definitively solved. For some people, this gives a justification for study and investigation and analysis, but for me, having read one book about Zodiac (and watched one film), I don’t feel any curiosity. Zodiac was Paul Doerr, probably: Kobek has evidenced this as best as is possible.

If Zodiac wasn’t Paul Doerr and wasn’t Arthur Leigh Allen, it doesn’t matter, because 52 years have passed since the killings and Zodiac was described as looking around 40 at the time: even if whoever did that violence still lives, they’re unlikely to be causing any more harm to anyone any more.

The justification for investigating “cold cases” is for the safe prevention of the risk of additional violence, rather than for morbid curiosity, right?

I mean, I read this (in fact as soon as I saw that hip novelist Jarett Kobek had written two true crime books I immediately ordered them both), and Kobek’s approach is distinctly literary – analysing and comparing the texts confirmed to be by Zodiac and the texts confirmed to be by Doerr. As an investigation, it is thorough, it is clear, and it is persuasive. If you’re into reading about real life killings OR Jarett Kobek, this pair of books is unlikely to disappoint. Even if, as I just can’t shake, there isn’t something a little grubby, a little excessive, about the whole bloody thing.

Order online but not directly from Amazon if possible.

///

I wrote the last few paragraphs sat on this wall in Florence (Firenze)’s Boboli Gardens: 


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2 comments on “Jarett Kobek & the Zodiac Killer (Motor Spirit & The Hunt for Zodiac)

  1. “a meta-textual masterpiece, arguably the last great postmodern American novel” – Preach! Gets no argument from me. “Atta” is a must and fairly quick read. I wouldn’t bother much with “The Future Won’t Be Long” unless you’re interested in the NYC dance scene of the 80s and 90s. If you just want a good belly laugh in the vein of “IHTI” you could read “Only Americans Burn In Hell”. Kobek couldn’t get any US publishers interested in it so got it published in the UK. May explain his move to hybrid indie/PoD for these 2 books.

    Liked by 1 person

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