Michelle McNamara was a dedicated woman. After becoming hooked on the East Area Rapist/Original Night Stalker case in 2007 (incidentally, the same year I discovered it) she dedicated years and years to amateur sleuthing it. After her sad, sudden death in 2016 at the age of only 46, her relatives went through her computer, and discovered literally thousands of files related to the case. Photos, maps, lists of items missing from crime scenes, lists of potential suspects etc. She had conducted a personal investigation to the creepy serial killer, aided by her trusty co-researchers on Internet’s true crime message boards.
The fruit of that investigation is this book, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, her take on the decades-old case, arguably the most anticipated true crime book of 2018. She started writing it some years ago, but sadly, never finished her magnum opus; the rest of the book has been constructed from her notes and previous writings.
In case you don’t know, the East Area Rapist/Original Night Stalker (currently known as the “Golden State Killer”, a moniker coined by McNamara) was a rapist and serial killer active from 1976 to 1986. He raped dozens of women before becoming a serial killer and murdering at least 12 people. After killing his last victim Janelle Lisa Cruz in 1986, he suddenly disappeared. His identity remains unknown.
McNamara weaves her tale into two threads that run parallel to each other: the story of a rapist/serial killer and his victims, and her own story of trying to put the pieces together as an amateur detective several decades later. In my opinion, she succeeds better with the latter part. To be honest, McNamara was so deeply invested in and knowledgeable on the GSK that the book never really feels like it was written for a “newbie”, the casual “Sunday detective”, but rather for her fellow sleuths already knee-deep obsessed with this case.
Nevertheless, the story of the GSK is morbidly fascinating in itself, and McNamara’s telling of it is sufficient enough in conveying the basic facts for the unfamiliar reader. A serial offender struck again and again, the police detectives were at a loss as to what to do, the neighborhoods the man struck in were terrified, and so on. However, this story has been told before – see, for example, Larry Crompton’s Sudden Terror or Richard Shelby’s Hunting a Psychopath. The basic narrative of the events as they happened is conveyed much better in these two works, not because the writers are better (McNamara was the best writer ever to have put together a book about these events), but because the authors were cops who were involved in the original investigation, and witnessed the killer’s rampage first hand.
The true strengths of IBGD are revealed once McNamara hits the streets and starts talking to witnesses and detectives. Details and theories emerge that are new even to the most dedicated amateur sleuth, and the author’s relentless quest to name the killer produces some genuinely memorable scenes. McNamara appears to have had an uncanny ability to get people to talk about things they would perhaps otherwise keep a secret, a necessary ability for someone looking to write a fresh book about a decades-old cold case. (The plane connection is especially titillating.) We also get to witness the efforts of a mom and professional career woman trying to balance her normal life with a dark obsession, a subject McNamara excels in writing about.
The book ends with a heartbreaking afterword from comedian and actor Patton Oswalt, McNamara’s husband, who was left to care for their daughter alone after Michelle’s passing.
If the author had lived long enough to finish her book from the start to the finish, perhaps we would have a more balanced work. However, as it is, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark will most likely live on as a vital, very interesting resource for those of us who, like McNamara herself, have been following this case for years. The book also provides a moment of comforting peer support to those of us who spend hours upon hours digging up files on old, cold cases, while our friends and relatives wonder what the hell we’re up to.
Despite this aforementioned emphasis on serving more experienced readers (whether intended or unintended), I can recommend this book to anyone interested in the case. However, I also recommend that you read through Shelby’s and Crompton’s books first, or dive in at the deep end by picking up and reading a copy of the massive Case Files of the East Area Rapist by Kat Winters and Keith Komos before opening IBGD.
Rest in peace, Michelle McNamara. One day, the Golden State Killer will be named, and you will have played a vital part in the process that led to his capture.