“The Most Dangerous Animal of All: Searching for My Father ... And Finding the Zodiac Killer” by Gary L. Stewart with Susan Mustafa. HarperCollins, 2014, $26.99.
When Baton Rouge businessman Gary L. Stewart began looking for his birth father, he thought his search might end with the two sharing a hug and having a cup of coffee together.
He never imagined that his hobby would turn into an investigation that took him into the mind of one of the most notorious serial killers of the 20th century. The result is a book that walks the line between memoir and true crime in the same vein as mystery writer James Ellroy’s 1996 bestseller “My Dark Places.”
After meeting his birth mother in 2002, Stewart started keeping a journal mainly focused around the experience of learning about his new family in San Francisco. His birth mother was reluctant to disclose any memories of his father, but finally relented and gave Stewart and a family friend the information that led them to Earl Van Best Jr.
Stewart’s journal gradually morphed into a detective’s file as he learned more about the man who abandoned him as an infant in a downtown Baton Rouge apartment building.
The first third of the book focuses on Best’s formative years. Using public records and recollections of family members, Stewart pieces together a complicated portrait of a minister’s son who, while very intelligent, had problems fitting into society.
This well-written profile of Best’s early years paints him as a bookish boy who would rather listen to Gilbert and Sullivan and decode ciphers with his father than play outdoors with cousins. Stewart also interviews his father’s high school friends who begin to reveal his darker side.
Best is depicted as a man with no interest in typical full-time employment who eked out a living selling antiques he imported from Mexico while spending his spare time engaging in philosophical discussions with Anton LaVey, the author of “The Satanic Bible.”
The city of San Francisco bears witness to Best’s descent into the fringes of society. Its gritty yet charming facade quickly becomes a main character that ultimately betrays him by rapidly evolving into a world he no longer understands and surrounding him with the strange anti-establishment cultural phenomenon of the late 1960s.
The middle portion of the account relies heavily on conjecture and circumstantial evidence. With Stewart serving as narrator, he intersperses his father into the timeline San Francisco police created to track the Zodiac Killer.
He speculates about the motives behind the Zodiac’s crime spree. It reads almost like fan fiction begging for more substance.
The final part of the book is the payoff. Seasoned true crime writer and co-author Susan Mustafa correlates decades of evidence and that adds strength to the previous section’s conjecture resulting in a compelling work of true crime that makes a strong case for Best being responsible for the series of murders and horrifying threats that paralyzed San Francisco with fear in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Stewart also recounts his attempts to share evidence and obtain information regarding the case with the San Francisco Police only to be stonewalled or ignored, which he asserts is the result of his birth mother’s second marriage to a high-ranking city police officer.
While “The Most Dangerous Animal of All” does not provide enough evidence to officially close the book on the predator known as the Zodiac, well-respected publisher HarperCollins stands behind Stewart and Mustafa’s work. Even if the theories presented eventually prove to be untrue, it is a meticulously well-constructed work that is worth the read for true crime fans.
Stewart has presented a valid case, and the next move is up to the San Francisco Police Department.