You wouldn’t take James Silva for a book lover. A crab fisherman, maybe, or the carpenter he’s sometimes posed as. He runs a stained glass shop in El Cerrito now, but on a spring day nine years ago, he was pawing through piles of books behind a thrift shop, looking for gems he could sell in his rare books store in Alameda. His kind of clientele turned up its snoot at anything with marks on it, so he gave a lot of the boxes the heave-ho. Nevertheless, as he sat in his shop that evening, the setting sun striping the front window like the bars on a cell, he saw that Fate had handed him a zinger. One of the books was seriously marked up. As he eyeballed it, he felt like somebody had poured a martini down his back.
On the cover of a dog-eared Western, someone had scrawled a circle with a cross in it. On the first and last pages were lists of numbers, referring to interior pages where passages had been marked. Silva knew that symbol well. It was the sign of the Zodiac Killer.
In the late 1960s and early ’70s, the Zodiac Killer terrorized the good citizens of the Bay Area and Southern California by picking them off like flies on the inside of a screen door. And he taunted the police and the press with letters containing cryptograms he said could reveal his identity … until the killings just stopped.
“The passages were all about the masked man hiding his identity, hiding from the police, killing a girl. It all fit right into a psychological parallel to Zodiac,” Silva said. He went back to the thrift shop the next day and bought twelve more boxes of the scribbled books. They blew him away: entire encyclopedias marked up and crammed with newspaper clippings, reference books obsessively annotated over and over in a crabbed hand. Everything looped back to Zodiac.
Enter Eddie Muller, a guy with a yen for the good old days of ’40s-style mayhem. His books about film noir made it respectable enough to land him a gig teaching Stanford eggheads about the simple art of murder. Silva called him up and told him he had something weird. That was all it took to lure Muller to the shop. And it didn’t take him long to see where Silva was going.
“Within about fifteen minutes, I got it,” Muller said. “I was far from an expert on the Zodiac, but I lived here when it happened and remembered key things.” Receipts, numerology, clippings — it all added up. The idea that Muller and Silva had identified the killer blew them both away.
Your average Joe solves a case the police can’t crack — it happens all the time in books, right? But the authorities gave Silva the brush-off. Maybe it was because the case was as cold as the trail of slime left by a slug crawling over a dead man’s foot. Or because cop shops everywhere were sinking under the weight of man’s inhumanity to man. At any rate, no one — not the cops in San Francisco, Vallejo, or Riverside, not the FBI and not the press — wanted much to do with the books.
Silva cut in another pal, Mark Herman, a freelance investigative journalist. Herman tracked the tomes to their owner, and then that owner through Riverside and Vallejo to Danville, where he’d died. There have been plenty of theories over the years about Zodiac’s identity, but this guy wasn’t on anyone’s list. He was dust, but he’d left a widow. Was the woman in that McMansion living in a fool’s paradise, or were her guts being eaten out by an awful truth?
The obvious thing was to go and ask her. “I’ve parked across the street from that house,” Silva said. But that’s as close as he ever got. He and Muller had chewed over the scenario, again and again. Marching up to that door in Danville and knocking. But what do you say? “Hi, I think your husband was a serial killer?”
“San Francisco has no use for the Zodiac anymore,” Muller said. Then, three years ago, he did. When he was invited to contribute to a noir fiction anthology two years ago, the true crime story slipped into fiction. “The Grand Inquisitor,” an account of his imagined confrontation between the Zodiac’s wife and the daughter of one of his victims, was so juicy that Muller decided last year to shoot it as a short film starring 91-year-old movie and TV actress Marsha Hunt.
“The theme of the movie is obsession, and how the need to solve something like that consumes people’s lives,” Muller said. Back in real life, if the books haven’t eaten up his soul and Silva’s too, they have left their mark.
Silva isn’t positive the books are the work of Zodiac; they could be the product of a different twisted mind. But he wants to know. Maybe Muller’s movie will smoke out someone who’s willing and able to finish the quest. “Until we get an answer one way or the other, we’ll hold onto the books,” he said. “Is there a possibility we’ll hold onto them for the rest of our lives with no resolution? Absolutely.”
Muller, who deals in the alternative truth of fiction, is more willing to let sleeping killers lie. To him, “The mystery is more intriguing than — perhaps — the truth.”