I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer
by Michelle McNamara
Genre: Nonfiction / True Crime
Length: 352 Pages
Published: February 27, 2018
Blurb via GoodReads:
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.
The last true crime book I read before this was Hunting Charles Manson: The Quest for Justice in the Days of Helter Skelter, by Lis Wiehl, and it left me feeling… unfulfilled. The marketing and blurb suggested a book that was focused primarily on the police work that eventually led to the arrests and convictions of Manson and the other Manson Family members, but that is not what Wiehl delivered. Instead, it felt like she was using the Manson family as a cautionary tale about drug use, going so far as to hint in the author’s note at the end that the legalization of marijuana would inevitably lead to another similar tragedy. In short: yikes.
I’ll Be Gone in the Dark was everything I had wanted out of Hunting Charles Manson and then some. McNamara successfully avoids one of the major pitfalls of true crime books, which is that they can feel terribly exploitative of the victims. McNamara’s book is imbued with a sense of respect for the victims and an intense desire to bring their tormentor to justice. She does not dangle sordid details in front of the reader in an attempt to horrify and thrill. She makes ample use of pseudonyms for still living victims. Her hatred for the man who committed these crimes in palpable.
At the time of McNamara’s writing, the Golden State Killer had not yet been identified. Consequently, the focus is very much on the evidence available and the police work which had been done to that point, as well as McNamara’s personal efforts in the case, time spent combing over old evidence and going through true crime discussion boards online to look for new leads and ideas. There is a sense of deep personal investment in the case which is contagious.
Joseph DeAngelo was identified as the Golden State Killer and arrested earlier this year, after McNamara’s death and the posthumous publication of her book. The police were able to identify him by comparing DNA samples from crime scenes to commercial DNA databases online, a possible avenue for identification which McNamara explored in her book. The book closes with a letter from McNamara to the killer; there is something eerie but also heart-wrenching about reading it after her death, knowing she did not live to see the monster she was hunting captured.
One day soon, you’ll hear a car pull up to your curb, an engine cut out. You’ll hear footsteps coming up your front walk. Like they did for Edward Wayne Edwards, twenty-nine years after he killed Timothy Hack and Kelly Drew, in Sullivan, Wisconsin. Like they did for Kenneth Lee Hicks, thirty years after he killed Lori Billingsley, in Aloha, Oregon.
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 toward 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.
This book was incomplete at the time of McNamara’s death. It was completed by piecing together her notes and drawing from her previous work on the subject. Given this, one might expect it to feel sloppy and disjointed, but that is not the case. Those who picked up the pieces to complete McNamara’s work for her did it true justice. Any fan of true crime will want to add this book to their collection.