I’LL BE GONE IN THE DARK: ONE WOMAN’S OBSESSIVE SEARCH FOR THE GOLDEN STATE KILLER
Author: Michelle McNamara
HarperCollins, 352 pages, $27.99
The narrative within “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark” is more epic and complex than you’ll find in the typical true crime saga, so perhaps it’s fitting that the events around the book’s completion, publication and significance in light of later developments also present extra comprehension hoops to jump through. If you’re a fan of the genre, it’s worth the effort.
When Michelle McNamara died unexpectedly in her sleep in April 2016, the Los Angeles-based true crime blogger and feature writer was deep into a major book project about the Golden State Killer. In addition to conventional research, she was an active if informal collaborator with a Contra Costa County, Calif., criminalist who was officially pursuing the long-cold case.
The object of her inquiry, whose identity was then unknown, was a prolific serial rapist and murderer who had been active in several parts of a California during the late 1970s and early ’80s. He had been known at various times as the East Area Rapist, the Original Night Stalker (distinct from Night Stalker Richard Ramirez, who had a similar modus operandi) and eventually by a name coined by McNamara, the Golden State Killer.
His DNA profile had definitively pulled many crimes together since 2001, enabling authorities to confirm that the same person was responsible for upwards of 50 reported sexual assaults and at least eight murders. However, his apparent lack of a serious criminal record meant that there was no identifiable person to match to the profile.
McNamara’s draft chapters, notes, audio interviews, previously published features and blog posts were cobbled together after her death, primarily by her research assistant and a fellow true crime writer, into a book that went on sale Feb. 27, 2018. “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer,” includes an afterward by McNamara’s husband, comedian/actor Patton Oswalt. According to information provided in the book, those working on the book in her footsteps elected to do very little additional writing, based on a wish to preserve McNamara’s voice.
In April of this year, a 72-year-old Sacramento area resident with, as many investigators had suspected, a background in police work, was arrested. He stands charged with eight counts of first-degree murder; the statute of limitations has expired on many sexual assaults that did not end in death.
The suspect was identified based on familial DNA, something that McNamara had projected would become his eventual trap. Several of his cousins, presumably unacquainted with him, had joined many of us in uploading ancestral genomic information to a public DNA database. Using those clues in conjunction with traditional genealogy, police consultants were able to zero in on one person, and he otherwise fit the killer’s profile. The man in custody is maintaining silence, and we can assume that, absent surprises, his trial looms far in the future.
Given the timing of the unfolding events, is this book a worth the time of a fan of true crime, much less of a general reader who dabbles in the genre? Without my being fully on board with the way the material is organized (the jumpy timeline seems to add to the burden of following a complex and frustrating investigation without bringing particular benefits) my answer is yes. McNamara’s memorial combines a very strong mix of analysis, empathy and engaging prose. With the serial criminal in question necessarily being a sort of malign silhouette, she focused her powers of characterization sharply on victims, including loved ones of the murdered, investigators, and on the physical and social settings where the crimes took place.
The autobiographical material she includes is centered on the origins of her interest in violent crime, her identity as a writer and the actual process of delving into a notoriously frustrating case whose investigative blind alleys are legendary.
While she didn’t get to write the end of the story, McNamara is a writer to embrace and miss.
Anne Payne organizes the Jax Freestyle Book Club for Real Readers at meetup.com.