Anne Rule’s classic The Stranger Beside Me told two stories at once: the story of the pursuit and capture of a serial killer, Ted Bundy, and the story of a true-crime writer who came to realize that one of her closest friends was a monster.
Similarly, Michelle McNamara’s I’ll Be Gone in the Dark tells two stories: the story of a monster who terrorized California for about a decade (mid-1970s to mid-‘80s), and the story of a writer whose life-long interest in cold cases – cases no longer being actively pursued by the police – led her to dedicate herself to bringing the monster to justice.
McNamara, who passed away before she could finish the book (her husband, Patton Oswalt, guided the book to completion), was a graceful and precise writer, and the story of her years-long quest to identify a killer is at once beautiful and horrifying; at once gentle and brutal.
Who was the Golden State Killer? That might be rather easier to answer, now that a suspect has been arrested (that happened in late April 2018, just a couple of months after the book was published), but when McNamara was writing the book he was a shadow, a whisper in the wind, a ghost that haunted her. The perpetrator raped fifty people, and murdered a dozen, over the span of about a decade, more than thirty years ago. He was known by various names — The East Area Rapist, The Original Night Stalker – and it wasn’t until years after the crimes stopped that investigators were able to link what appeared to be many unrelated crimes and confirm that one individual was responsible for all of them. But no one knew who he was.
McNamara, who coined the term Golden State Killer, spent years going through the evidence, speaking with people who worked the case over the years (going back to when it was still several seemingly unconnected crimes), interviewing some of the monster’s victims, following leads and trying, with a passion that turned to obsession, to put a face to this brutal rapist and killer. She writes about her single-minded pursuit with a self-awareness that’s painful, at times, to read: she knows she’s obsessed, but can’t turn away from the Golden State Killer. Finding out who he is isn’t a pastime, or a writing assignment: it’s part of who McNamara is, it’s as vital to her existence as, say, breathing.
I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is crime nonfiction at its very best: a deeply personal story told by a talented writer. HBO has optioned the rights to the book, but please don’t wait for the small-screen adaptation. No matter how good it is, I’m not sure it will capture McNamara’s voice, or the passion behind it.
Copyright 2018 David Pitt