A potentially interesting story remains unrealised.
THE story of an adopted child going in search of his or her biological parents is not an uncommon subject of books. Some of these stories have shocking revelations about the parents, and in the case of The Most Dangerous Animal of All, it turns out that the biological father of author Gary L. Stewart might be the notorious Zodiac Killer.
The Zodiac Killer was active in California in the late 1960s and early 1970s. He was never caught, and there is speculation to this day about his identity.
The book’s title is the story’s premise. However, the more I read, the more I realised that the title is just a hook. I expected to see every part of the biological father’s history as pieces of a puzzle leading to his transformation into the Zodiac Killer. Not all the pieces fit, though – but the writers insist they do.
Unfortunately, neither Stewart’s journey in search of his biological father, Earl Van Best Jr, nor his father’s life make for compelling reading. Most of the characters, including Stewart’s biological mother, are flimsy and caricature-like. The exchanges between them are amateurish and emotionally stiff.
The story-telling is uneven, fluctuating between superficial emotional exchanges and historical stories about Stewart’s biological ancestors; I’m hesitant to say historical facts, as there is no indication of how or where personal exchanges that took place in the early 1900s were obtained.
The authors – Stewart wrote the book with the help of author and journalist Susan Mustafa – take a non-linear approach to the writing that does not always work. Paragraphs jump from one focal point to the next, without any clear direction of the flow of ideas. For example, the writers claim that Van Best was not well-liked during his secondary school days, but the next chapter talks about how he became friends with an English viscount’s son no less, travelled to London, and attended Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation in 1952.
But wait, the viscount notices Van Best’s interest in the occult and encourages it. Then, Van Best meets Anton LaVey, founder of the Church of Satan, who further fuelled this interest. And, of course, Van Best grew up with a father who gave him puzzles as a child, which alludes to the Zodiac Killer’s modus operandi and practice of providing cryptic clues to newspapers. But most of these dramatic stories are from secondary or tertiary sources, making them less than convincing.
There is an interesting story here, though. A story about a man who was a bright child with limited choices. Then, as an adult, he found people who noticed his potential. This man also had a darker side, possibly created by his unstable childhood. However, Stewart and Mustafa are unable to tap into this potentially interesting story, and I found myself losing interest in Van Best pretty quickly.
Could Van Best be the Zodiac Killer? The more compelling evidence that the writers put forth does get you thinking about that possibility (eg, the cipher and the fingerprints) but others seem merely circumstantial (the female victims resembling Stewart’s biological mother, the mug shot comparison). Much of the evidence is based on Stewart’s own investigation, and due to his personal investment in the story, it’s easy to see that he is not necessarily the most objective person to assess the evidence.
I feel that the writers appear to have taken a more dramatic approach than necessary, but true crime enthusiasts may take some delight in this book. For me, though, Van Best simply comes across as a man with psychological issues that were never resolved.