Book: “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer” by Michelle McNamara
Publishing Info: Harper, February 2018
Where Did I Get This Book: The library!
Book Description: A masterful true crime account of the Golden State Killer—the elusive serial rapist turned murderer who terrorized California for over a decade—from Michelle McNamara, the gifted journalist who died tragically while investigating the case.
“You’ll be silent forever, and I’ll be gone in the dark.”
For more than ten years, a mysterious and violent predator committed fifty sexual assaults in Northern California before moving south, where he perpetrated ten sadistic murders. Then he disappeared, eluding capture by multiple police forces and some of the best detectives in the area.
Three decades later, Michelle McNamara, a true crime journalist who created the popular website TrueCrimeDiary.com, was determined to find the violent psychopath she called “the Golden State Killer.” Michelle pored over police reports, interviewed victims, and embedded herself in the online communities that were as obsessed with the case as she was.
At the time of the crimes, the Golden State Killer was between the ages of eighteen and thirty, Caucasian, and athletic—capable of vaulting tall fences. He always wore a mask. After choosing a victim—he favored suburban couples—he often entered their home when no one was there, studying family pictures, mastering the layout. He attacked while they slept, using a flashlight to awaken and blind them. Though they could not recognize him, his victims recalled his voice: a guttural whisper through clenched teeth, abrupt and threatening.
I’ll Be Gone in the Dark—the masterpiece McNamara was writing at the time of her sudden death—offers an atmospheric snapshot of a moment in American history and a chilling account of a criminal mastermind and the wreckage he left behind. It is also a portrait of a woman’s obsession and her unflagging pursuit of the truth. Framed by an introduction by Gillian Flynn and an afterword by her husband, Patton Oswalt, the book was completed by Michelle’s lead researcher and a close colleague. Utterly original and compelling, it is destined to become a true crime classic—and may at last unmask the Golden State Killer.
Review: I woke up on April 25th to a story I never thought, but I had long hoped, to see: there was an arrest in the Golden State Killer case. The Golden State Killer (GSK), aka The East Area Rapist (EARS) or The Original Night Stalker (ONS), was suspected of fifty rapes, a dozen murders, and more than 100 burglaries, all committed in California over the course of a few decades, and it was long thought that he wouldn’t be caught. As a huge true crime fan, I knew this case fairly well, thanks two big factors. The first was the podcast “My Favorite Murder”, and that led to the second: the book “I’ll Be Gone In The Dark” by Michelle McNamara. McNamara was a true crime writer with the blog “True Crime Diary”, and had been doggedly pursuing The Golden State Killer (a phrase she created) at the time of her tragic death in 2016. Earlier this year “I’ll Be Gone In The Dark” was released, in part to Bill Jensen, a co-investigator and investigative journalist in his own right. So when an arrest was made, the news spread like wildfire, and while the police were reluctant to give McNamara any credit outside of raising awareness, many think that that very awareness (starting with her blog and various articles she wrote) was vital to putting pressure on, which in turn led to an arrest. I read “I’ll Be Gone In The Dark” before Joseph DeAngelo, a former police officer and seventy two year old man, was arrested for the crimes. But now that he has been, I want to shine a light on this great book, especially since the story has finally found some closure.
What stands out immediately about this book is how personal it is. While McNamara herself didn’t know anyone who was hurt or killed by GSK/EAR/ONS, an unsolved murder of a childhood neighbor always stuck with her throughout her life. As she started to learn about The Golden State Killer, she began to feel a deep sense of injustice for the victims that he left behind, and started to investigate it herself. She made connections with investigators, she dove into online groups of fellow armchair investigators, she visited locations and dug through box after box of evidence. Her almost obsessive commitment to this case is juxtaposed with the crimes themselves, and the horror that GSK/EAR/ONS brought upon his victims. But she is always sure to be respectful, and to keep the details vague enough to be respectful, but precise enough to paint a picture of just how awful these crimes were. She gives voice and context for the people that GSK/EAR/ONS raped or murdered, and always puts them at the forefront and the fact that justice eluded them and those they left behind for so long. In many true crime books (with a few exceptions, of course, like Ann Rule) the focus is primarily on the murderer, and the victims merely objects in a salacious story. But with McNamara, she wants the reader to know the victims and makes their voices the most important ones. Would this be different had DeAngelo been identified at publishing? Possibly. But I do get the sense that for McNamara, the identity was only important for justice purposes; this wouldn’t have been a story to give him any glory or to make his crimes entertainment.
As you read, McNamara instills actual terror into you. I had to stop reading this book after dark, because any noise and anything out of place sent me into a paranoid spiral. Her writing is that immersive, pulling you in and keeping you engaged. She also makes herself vulnerable by being fully aware and honest with her own obsession, and the toll that it takes on her life and her own mental health. Unlike the book that Robert Graysmith wrote about The Zodiac Killer, McNamara knew that she was treading towards obsession, and that it was deeply affecting her life. The sad fact of the matter is that when Michelle died unexpectedly in her sleep, she could have been seen as, in a way, GSK/EAR/ONS ‘s last victim. She had been having trouble sleeping, and her husband (comedian Patton Oswalt) had suggested she take some Xanax and just sleep until she woke up. And she didn’t wake up, because of an undiagnosed heart condition in tandem to the Xanax and other prescriptions. The tragedy of her death lingers on the page, as there are sections with editor’s notes that explain that they were originally unfinished, or that they were pieced together by her notes or previous articles. It’s so great to see that this book and story she was so dedicated to was finished by people close to her, but the loss is still palpable.
So how does the new information about John DeAngelo affect this book? If anything, it makes it more poignant, and it certainly doesn’t diminish it. I say this because of a specific moment in the epilogue, entitled “A Letter To An Old Man”. It’s a final moment that is essentially a letter from Michelle to GSK/EAR/ONS, and it works as a powerful cap off to a wonderful book. The final paragraph is all the more powerful now. I’m going to quote part of it here to show you what I mean, a quote that’s made the rounds on social media a lot in the days after DeAngelo’s capture.
“The doorbell rings. No side gates are left open. You’re long past leaping over a fence. Take one of your hyper, gulping breaths. Clench your teeth. Inch timidly towards the insistent bell. This is how it ends for you. ‘You’ll be silent forever, and I’ll be gone in the dark,’ you threatened a victim, once. Open the door. Show us your face. Walk into the light.”
And as Patton Oswalt and many others have pointed out, this is exactly what happened on April 25th, 2018.
“I’ll Be Gone in the Dark” is a stunning true crime book and an opus for a voice that left us far too soon. It will surely be considered one of the greats of the genre in the years to come, and Michelle McNamara will be remembered for all the good that she did in her help to bringing closure to the victims of a horrible monster. But it’s also just well written book about confronting darkness in life and in ourselves, and how to battle it as best we can.
Rating 9: A tense and well written true crime opus by a voice gone too soon, “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark” is a tribute to perseverance, and will stand the test of time as not only a true crime classic but as one that probably helped bring justice to the victims of a monster.
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