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Authors Walter Bosley and Richard B. Spence take a novel approach in examining the Zodiac killer crimes, the infamous and still open serial murder case in northern California, as part of their examination of crimes from another time and place. Empire of the Wheel initially uses the narrative of a novel to explore a rather arcane possibility that Zodiac connects to a serial murder case from fifty years previous in San Bernadino. “Her face hit the water,” the book begins, “She did not gently submerge; there was nothing gentle about it. It was well into autumn and the water was cold…”
The book proceeds through the stories of the murders of Cora Stanton, the Estep children and others notorious in the 1910s, describing the autumn in San Bernardino and offering almost obsessive detail of the crimes. Bosley and Spence assert that they intend to provide questions avoided by official and press reports, and so atmospherics play a large role in the book as well. The daily press attracts readers with lurid detail and official reports attempt to fit everything into crime and punishment categories. The weirdness of these killings, as well as San Bernadino’s cultural milieu of spiritualism and Mormonism beg a deeper look, which this book provides, making links—via avenues as off-normal as things like telluric ley lines—to the life of Aleister Crowley and even the death of Harry Houdini. Quotes from the likes of Bram Stoker and H. P. Lovecraft pepper the text, reinforcing the frame of mind in which the sleuthing here needs to be viewed.
Empire of the Wheel doesn’t lose the character of documentary, however. A central part of the narrative sets this out fairly concretely: “Many authors and cultural researchers, such as John Keel and Jim Brandon, argue that there is an ancient and sinister undercurrent running beneath the bright, modern exterior of American society. Stephen King has made a career out of writing about it. The late ‘mythopoeic political historian’ James Shelby Downard (1913-1998) conjured up a phantasmagorical and unsettling portrait of an America riddled with ‘Masonic sorcery’; “Call to Chaos” cultism and ‘Mystical Toponomy,” an America in which literally nothing is as it seemed….To Downard, the America of ‘baseball-hot dogs-apple pie-and Chevrolet’ was but a facade beneath which the ‘eternal pagan psychodrama’ played itself out in a never—ending cycle, invisible to those uninitiated in its secret symbols and rituals. It is east, and comforting, to dismiss Downard as a simple nut-case because if he isn’t, America is a much stranger place than most of us could possibly imagine.”
The writers’ chore here is to link up these disparate murders and arcane history Kell, Brandon, Downard and see if they fit into the perspective that Keel, Brandon and Downard evoke. This it does, but also as a true crime novel it’s a page turner.