I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara
Published by Harper Collins on February 27, 2018
my rating: ★★★★.5
Goodreads avg: 4.19 (as of 2019-03-14)
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.” McNamara 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 McNamara’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.
I think almost everyone has heard of I’ll Be Gone in the Dark at this point. It is the true crime book of the last few years. The disturbing, intriguing mystery is enough to pique interest, but Michelle McNamara’s sudden death combined with the fact that the Golden State Killer (aka the East Area Rapist, aka the Original Night Stalker) was arrested shortly after the book’s release makes I’ll Be Gone almost impossible to disregard. I bought a copy of the book back in August and put off reading it for the “right” time, afraid to pick it up for fear it would trigger a bought of paranoia that even a locked door wouldn’t fend off.
There’s a scream permanently lodged in my throat now.
Fortunately, that was not the case. While a decent portion of the book is devoted to the Golden State Killer’s crimes, the focus is more on his methodology than any graphic details. Although, what we are told about is chilling: a startlingly literal form of stalking, wherein the GSK learns every pertinent detail of his victims’ lives so that he might have complete control over them while attacking. Our homes are sacred places to us, and any safety or comfort residents of the communities he attacked may have felt was ripped away from them in the aftermath of these events.
The EAR is a card face down on a table. Our speculation is a cul-de-sac. Round and round we go.
More than the crimes themselves, McNamara focuses in on the process of hunting the GSK. It seemed he foiled investigators at every turn. Even after the study of DNA analysis continued to grow, even when they had multiple samples linking him to countless crimes, they were unable to determine who this man was. Instead of presenting the experiences of faceless cops, McNamara digs deep into the investigators’ involvement and brings them to the forefront as their own fully-fledged selves. We even watch her build personal connections with them as she herself attempts to unveil this masked predator they all have in common.
“Has he ever gone back?” the thirteen-year-old asked the investigators interviewing her after the attack.
“Never,” said the first investigator.
“Never, ever, ever,” said the second.
“The safest house in the area,” said the first.
As if any house was ever going to feel safe again.
In this way, I’ll Be Gone is more than just a compilation of the events and evidence surrounding the Golden State Killer; it is a memoir detailing McNamara’s relationship with the investigation itself. We learn about her life, how her obsession alarms her in the way it mirrors the killer’s own obsessions. We learn where she was when learning vital pieces of information, as well as how deeply she was willing to dig in order to uncover this night terror made real. McNamara was no mere true crime writer; she was truly part of this investigation in a way that few seemed to be.
A ski mask won’t help you now.
The book isn’t perfect, but there’s no way it could have been. Michelle McNamara passed away suddenly while still writing, leaving her editor and friends to piece together her work into what has become its final form. The last part of the book, the shortest, is more of a summary of notes than anything else. But, somehow this works. I shed tears more than once while reading, knowing McNamara was unable to see what had come of her work. Her husband, Patton Oswalt, wrote an afterword that left me absolutely heartbroken. Somehow, the book manages to end on a positive note: a letter from Michelle McNamara to that shadow in the dark, the absolute nightmare of a man who she knew would someday be caught. And knowing that he has been strengthens this letter into the triumphant swan song of a woman who left this world just too soon.