Sunday, March 18, 2007

Playing Hoax to Zodiac

In case you hadn't noticed, true crime stories are making the rounds of the theaters. I decided it was worth spending some time with the books that spawned Zodiac and The Hoax.

The Hoax, due out on film in a few weeks, is the more rewarding book of the two. The tell-all story by Clifford Irving entertains with detail, gracefulness and unselfconscious prose, though the author himself is easily despised. Irving's version of the story was of particular interest to me because I happened to be, in another lifetime, something of a Howard Hughes buff and an acquaintance of Jim Phelan. It was a well-researched Phelan manuscript was grist for Irving's prodigiously audacious and in the end criminal attempt to sell, and then produce, a fake autobiography of Hughes. I can still picture Phelan charging into the newsroom at the Long Beach Press-Telegram, his manuscript under his arm, having to tell his friends there that he was off to New York to prove that Irving was a plagiarizer, a liar and a thief.

As Irving tells the story --- under threat of returning to jail, he insists --- he began larking with the idea, got caught up in the excitement of his own plan, and sold it to his publisher for an advance of a couple of hundred grand. He worked the book all the way until it was ready to go to print, got caught and ultimately tried to give most of the money back as he found himself headed to prison. As with many true crime accounts, all of this is known to the reader from the outset of the book. It's how Irving's caper evolved that makes this off beat true crime story engaging. Awfully impressed with himself, as Irving would have had to be to, he spends too much verbiage in the middle of the book on some of the fanciful stories he made up about Hughes. But the opening chapters are wonderful and the story works all the way to the end.

Zodiac Unmasked, which is the first Roger Graysmith version of Zodiac story that I could get my hands on, reads like one long unedited police report of the disjointed kind that I used to plow through in police stations across Los Angeles County. If you see the movie and want to know more, you might want to try it out. I am still interested enough in the story to see the movie, which many critics have suggested drones on too long. I can put up with that, but if I were starting over I'd be inclined to skip the book.

No comments: