True Crime Tuesdays: The Most Dangerous Animal of All
Helen Archer | On 22, Jun 2021
The case of the Zodiac killer, active in San Francisco in the 1960s and 70s – where he murdered at least 5 people and left a community terrorised – is one of the most famous unsolved investigations of the 20th century. The passing of time has had little impact on its notoriety, but recent popular culture has focused less on the murders themselves and more on the effect they have had on those who became obsessed with uncovering the Zodiac’s identity. FX’s first foray into the true crime genre, by director Kief Davidson, is not merely another look at the investigation, but is in fact a subtle interrogation of the true crime genre itself, an odd and yet strangely apt addition to the Zodiac canon.
The four-part series is based on the 2014 bestselling book of the same name, which documented the way in which Gary L. Stewart’s search for his biological father, Earl Van Best Jr, led him to the conclusion that the man he was looking for was also the Zodiac. Working with a ghostwriter, Susan Mustafa, Stewart’s memoir was published by HarperCollins to much acclaim, although many of the assertions made in the text were met with skepticism. Stewart became the subject of criticism from both the general public and his nearest and dearest, who disapproved of the way in which he inserted himself – and, by definition, his family – into the murders.
If you aren’t aware of this murky background, however, it’s very easy to approach The Most Dangerous Animal Of All as you would any other prestige true crime documentary, implicitly trusting those who claim to have been investigating the case for years, uncovering hidden links and previously unknown details. Stewart and Mustafa are, in the first three episodes, portrayed as forensic investigators, filmed in dimly lit rooms pacing around a large board covered with photographs and documents. Their claims are seemingly taken at face value, giving them free rein to steer the narrative. The series initially marks Stewart as the figurehead, allowing him to espouse his theories, with barely any pushback. By the time the final episode comes round, though, some of the initially indisputable evidence is clearly disputable, regardless of how many times it is confidently put forward.
It all begins with a fascinating and disturbing first episode, as Stewart outlines the abuse suffered by his birth mother, Judith Chandler, at the hands of Van Best. Grooming her from the age of 13 (Van Best was 27 when they met in the early 1960s), their relationship hit the headlines at the time. The press dubbed the pair’s relationship, dubiously, as the “Ice Cream Romance” – Van absconded with Chandler, taking her from state to state, eventually impregnating her and ultimately dumping their baby on a New Orleans stairwell. Stewart was quickly adopted into a loving family but, in 2002, Chandler tracked her son down. It was while getting to know her that Stewart became convinced that Van Best, his father, was the Zodiac killer – based, initially, on the likeness between Van Best and the police sketch of the notorious killer.
Stewart’s obsession cost him several marriages and put his newfound relationship with his birth mother under huge strain. The second and third episodes allude to the damaging aspects of his investigation but, for the most part, they – apparently uncritically – lend gravitas to Stewart’s findings, which include faulty handwriting analysis and inaccurate information about the whereabouts of Van Best during the period of the Zodiac murders.
For true crime fans, these two middle episodes are the most infuriating, almost a pastiche of the genre, in which people claim they have irrefutable evidence that even the least observant among us would surely question. They’re also quite clumsy, repetitive, and strangely boring. The victims of the Zodiac killer are barely mentioned. But the most troubling aspect of the whole endeavour is the treatment of Chandler, Stewart’s birth mother, the teenage victim of grooming and abuse – now turned, thanks to her son, into tabloid fodder once again.
It is with some relief, then, that the final episode examines where the “evidence” goes wrong, putting the discrepancies to both Stewart and his ghostwriter. Excuses are made – Mustafa points out the use of the techniques of fiction in true crime, less to mislead but to lend the text a “narrative touch-up”. A HarperCollins editor admits to embracing the sensational, and all agree that there is little to no fact-checking in such books.
There are, too, existential questions about the construction not only of stories, but also of identity – Stewart’s search, after all, was for his father, in the hopes of plugging a gaping, glaring hole in his psyche. Yet for all this exploration of who and what he is, he ultimately lost all sense of self in his plummet down the Zodiac rabbit hole – the only place where he felt his life had meaning. It’s a strange story about a life ruined by an addiction to sleuthing, where fact and fiction merge, creating a reality which could be described as a “true fiction”. And it leaves the viewer questioning just how many other such crime documentaries could also take that mantle.
The Most Dangerous Animal of All is available on Sky Crime. Don’t have Sky? You can also stream it on NOW, for £9.99 a month with no contract. For the latest Sky TV packages and prices, click the button below.