I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is a great book, a classic of the genre. It is also a eulogy.
Tragedy binds I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, the chronicle of the crowdsourced hunt for one of California’s most prolific serial rapists/killers spearheaded by crime writer Michelle McNamara, in obvious and unexpected ways. McNamara dubbed her subject the Golden State Killer when her efforts connected crime scenes that stretched from Sacramento, the state’s northern capital, to southern Irvine, somewhat adjacent to Disneyland. Over 13 murder and 50 rapes fill the docket of the Golden State Killer while he was active from 1976 to 1986. Prowling and serial burglary were also part of his M.O. He familiarized himself with the neighborhoods he terrorized, stole items of personal value from his victims and always had multiple escape routes. Physically, he was an average, underendowed man, unexceptional in any way, but he haunted his victims and the people who sought him for decades.
All that terror and pain contours the obvious tragedy. The more subtle tragedy belongs to McNamara. Finding the Golden State Killer became her obsession and she became its unintended victim. She died on April 21, 2016 of an accidental overdose, an all too frequent cause of death these days. She seemed to have been striving to stave off sleep to force an extra hour of sharpened focus, but an undiagnosed arterial condition did not agree with her intentions. She did not live long enough to see her efforts help expose the man she sought. Her death derailed the book, but her husband, comedian Patton Oswalt, journalist Billy Jensen and Paul Haynes, one of McNamara’s online associates who became her lead researcher, saw the book to publication. And the book they fostered is possibly the finest entry to the True Crime genre since Capote’s In Cold Blood.
Murder first touched Michelle McNamara’s life when she was a teenager in the suburbs of Chicago when one of her neighbors was killed. The victim was a young woman out for a jog, and McNamara would go on to collect the shattered pieces of the victim’s Walkman from the ground. The action inspired something in her and she would write: “What gripped me was the specter of that question mark where the killer’s face should be. The hollow gap of his identity seemed violently powerful to me.” Unsolved murders became a point of fascination and a driving interest in her mid-thirties when she created the blog True Crime Diary. With her website she became a DIY sleuth and was ushered into an online world of the likeminded. Her impetus was simple: she needed to see the face of all the unknown killers she could. “He loses his power when we know his face.”
A Google search of the now captured Golden State Killer will illustrate the veracity of that statement, but before his apprehension in April of 2018, Joseph James DeAngelo was more urban myth than man. Stating his identity now does nothing to deplete McNamara’s book of its intensity; it is more than just the tale of an elusive butcher prone to blunt force trauma. She stands for the victims and many detectives whose lives were forever altered by their pursuit of the Golden State Killer. But the book is also McNamara’s testament to her obsession. She weaves California history with memoir, describing official pursuit as well as personal process.
The power of McNamara’s fixation fills every page and becomes infectious. She grips you with the horror of Sacramento in the 1970s. Her need to find the killer transfers to the reader, postponing sleep and heightening every household sound when one is alone in their living room, locked into McNamara’s harrowing prose. The Golden State Killer’s crimes were the stuff of suburban nightmare. He would enter a home through an open window or jimmy a screen door. When he focused his attention solely on women he would wake them with a knife pressed against flesh and a threat on his lips. He bound them, rummaged through their belongings while grumbling and shouting, then finally raped them. He grew more daring by going after couples and his script evolved. He’d disorientate the sleeping couple with the beam of his flashlight and subdue the men at gunpoint. He’d have the women bind the men, then lead the women to the living room, tie them up and assault them. He would pile plates on the men’s backs, threatening to kill everyone if he heard the plates shift. McNamara’s prose is penetrating and auditory, making every whisper a jump scare.
The story of the Golden State Killer is of a deranged, master criminal who was only close to capture a couple of times during his prolific crime spree. But the training that became a function of his mastery grew antiquated. For all his planning, roaming and note taking, he left copious amounts of evidence that would eventually prove his undoing. He wore gloves, never leaving fingerprints, but he left ejaculate at every crime scene. One cannot help but hope that he watched the role DNA analysis played in the O.J. Simpson trial and began to sweat or tried to convince himself that what he was watching on TV police procedurals was simply fiction. In the book, McNamara outlines the evolutions in DNA profiling and was down that road of investigation at the time of her death. The lesson those chapters provide for any former and aspiring criminal is that you will get caught. Apprehension is only a matter of time.
Anyone reading I’ll Be Gone in the Dark must know its backstory, but you cannot help but feel the loss of its author when it arrives in the text. She must have been a vibrant personality because the moments of Michelle leap off the page. At times, when she’s describing the cost the hunt has burdened the detectives who were first assigned the Golden State Killer cases, her writing feels horribly prescient. Crime scene photographs are not easily erased from one’s memory. The questions about clues and connections missed induce insomnia for analog detectives from the 20th century and wired amateur sleuths alike. If this was a horror movie, the cold case files would be considered as cursed as the mummy’s tomb.
But, Michelle McNamara wasn’t afraid. She provided a new mind and set of eyes to the career of a prolific criminal. In his endearing afterward, Patton Oswald describes how his wife disdained superhero movies, but she spent so much of her life in pursuit of truth and justice. But not all superheroes are immortal. She caught the killer, but the price was too high. I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is a great book, a classic of the genre. It is also a eulogy.