Kemper's Reviews > I'll Be Gone in the Dark

I'll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara
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bookshelves: 2018, 5-0, crime-mystery, non-fiction, serial-killers

**Update 4/26/2018 - When this book was published it was an unsolved mystery. It got a happy ending yesterday.**

I'd heard about Michelle McNamara before I even knew her name or that she was a true crime writer. She was married to comedian/actor Patton Oswalt, who I’m a big fan of, and several of his bits over the years have involved his wife. Per Patton’s descriptions in his routines she was a brilliant woman, far smarter than him, who was always operating at a whole other level.

Now I know what he was talking about after reading this book. It’s about a pure monster that should be one of the best known unsolved crime cases in American history, but many people have probably never heard of the Golden State Killer. It began in 1976 with a serial rapist terrorizing the suburbs of Sacramento. His MO was to break into homes in the middle of the night and surprise sleeping victims who he’d threaten with knives or guns. He often targeted couples or families and would rape a woman while her husband or boyfriend was tied up helpless in the next room. He’s also believed to have shot and killed a couple who had the misfortune to encounter him while out walking their dog.

His attacks spread to communities outside of San Francisco, but seemed to stop in mid-1979. Unfortunately, GSK had just moved south to the LA area where he started up again, but his first known attempt was thwarted when the couple fought back, and he narrowly escaped capture. Instead of scaring him off this triggered an escalation after which GSK would kill those he attacked until stopping in 1986, ten years after he began.

The full extent of the damage he’d done wasn’t known until DNA typing of cold cases was done in 2001. This confirmed what several detectives in various jurisdictions had suspected for years. The man called the East Area Rapist (EAR) during his crime spree in northern California was the same man who’d become known as the Original Night Stalker (ONS) in the southern part of the state. The statistics of his victims alone are staggering with over 50 women sexually assaulted and 12 murders. He may have also been responsible for a series of break-ins in Visalia a few years earlier, and if so there’s another murder to hang on him there for shooting a man who stopped an intruder from abducting his daughter in the middle of the night from their home.

It was Michelle McNamara who branded him the Golden State Killer after she began writing about the case on her blog and in magazine articles. She had became interested in true crime as a teenager after an unsolved murder of a young girl happened near her home. A big part of this story is about how this case came to obsess her, and she does not make an attempt to gloss over how much it took over her life. She has one story of asking her husband to leave a movie premiere party because of a new lead she was given that she couldn’t wait to get back to her laptop to start working on it. There’s another heartbreaking moment when she describes an anniversary dinner with Patton where she realized that not only had he given her gifts two years in a row based on her on-going work on GSK, but that she had been so consumed that she’d forgotten to get him anything at all.

Unfortunately, Michelle died unexpectedly in 2016 while in the middle of writing this book. Two of her fellow researchers finished it at Patton’s urging, and I’m very glad that happened because it would have been a shame if the work she did on this hadn’t been revealed so fully.

She was an incredibly gifted writer who can provide detail about GSK’s crime in such a way that we feel the full weight of what he did, and how incredibly scary this story is. It’s there as she details the evidence the police found that showed that GSK was a relentless night prowler who crept over fences, through backyards, across rooftops, and peeped windows from the shadows. It’s in the way she tells us the stories from the victims who were very often sound asleep in their beds and were awoken by a man wearing a ski mask shining a light in their eyes, showing them a knife, and telling them that he’d kill them if they didn’t do exactly what he said. While it never feels exploitive she conveys all the ways that the surviving victim’s lives were changed by the attacks on them. When she describes a detective’s years of chasing dead ends you can feel the frustration, and when she tells the story of a new lead you also start tapping into the hope that this might be the one to break the case.

In addition to being a great writer Michelle was a relentless researcher. I sometimes have issues with books or documentaries about true crime cases because I think it too often it shows confirmation bias or prefers wild conspiracy theories to more likely mundane facts and scenarios. She avoids those by imposing clear and logical standards to this which depended on fact checking and interviews rather than indulging in hunches or pet theories.

It’s very clear from what she wrote here that Michelle believed that this case could be solved with technology. The cops have the DNA of the Golden State Killer to use as the ultimate determination of guilt or innocence. Geo-Mapping his crime scenes should give an approximate location of where he lived. Scanning old case files and using key word recognition and data sorting can bring previously hidden connections to life. DNA databases are growing all the time, and all it takes is one hit from a relative to narrow it down to the family.* Michelle was convinced that GSK’s identity was in the existing evidence somewhere, and it’s just a matter of sifting through all the clues to find it.

Because of her death there several parts that rely on her early drafts, notes, old magazine articles, and even a tape she made of the conversation between her and a police detective while showing her some of the GSK’s crime scenes. That gives the book a bit of a disjointed feeling and makes you wish even more that she’d been able to finish it herself, but considering the circumstances it’s unavoidable and doesn’t prevent the full story from being told.

This will be going on my Best-of-True-Crime shelf, right next to In Cold Blood. And if they do ever catch the Golden State Killer I’ll bet it’s going to be due in no small part to the work of Michelle McNamara.

* This is exactly how the police eventually tracked him down.
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Reading Progress

January 31, 2018 – Shelved
March 7, 2018 – Started Reading
March 14, 2018 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-29 of 29 (29 new)

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message 1: by Carol (new) - added it

Carol Excellent review. I will add this to my list.


message 2: by Carol (new) - added it

Carol Loved Patton Oswalt in Justified.


Kemper Carol wrote: "Loved Patton Oswalt in Justified."

He was great as Constable Bob. He's hilarious right now on AP Bio as the principal of a school.


Trudi Great review. This book definitely deserves all the attention it’s getting and underlines the tragedy of Michelle’s sudden death. It is mind boggling to think this guy avoided capture and that so few people have ever even heard of him. This is an important book.


message 5: by Kerry (new) - added it

Kerry Great review! I have a love/hate relationship with unsolved true crime. My need for a solution can drive me nuts. The show Unsolved Mysteries was my nightmare show. I usually end up reading these because I love the mystery and the research put in.


Kemper Kerry wrote: "Great review! I have a love/hate relationship with unsolved true crime. My need for a solution can drive me nuts. The show Unsolved Mysteries was my nightmare show. I usually end up reading these b..."

Thanks.


Kemper Trudi wrote: "Great review. This book definitely deserves all the attention it’s getting and underlines the tragedy of Michelle’s sudden death. It is mind boggling to think this guy avoided capture and that so f..."

Yeah, that's the point that she makes several times in the book that I agree with: Considering the amount of evidence and clues there are it really seems like he should have been caught at some point.


message 8: by Heidi (new) - added it

Heidi NPR has a nice little feature in this book yesterday. Glad to know their review was spot on.


message 9: by Anurag (new)

Anurag To which people will you recommend it the most?


Kemper Heidi wrote: "NPR has a nice little feature in this book yesterday. Glad to know their review was spot on."

It deserves the praise it's getting.


message 11: by Kemper (last edited Mar 16, 2018 10:51AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Kemper Anurag wrote: "To which people will you recommend it the most?"

To anyone who reads the summary of it and think it sounds like something they'd be interested in.


Theresa Alan Great review. Sounds chilling on many levels.


Kemper Theresa wrote: "Great review. Sounds chilling on many levels."

I don't usually get spooked by true crime, but this pretty much terrified me.


Christina This is such a good review. I’m almost too scared to read the book, but your review is compelling me to read it. Damn you. (And thanks.)


Kemper Christina wrote: "This is such a good review. I’m almost too scared to read the book, but your review is compelling me to read it. Damn you. (And thanks.)"

I'm not kidding about this book scaring the hell out of me. I'm checking my door and window locks three times a night and I can't bear to look out a window into my backyard at night now.


Catalina I agree this was a frightening book. I definitely was impressed with her writing and research. I felt like I was jogging through each crime and trying to solve this with her. Good review.

Ps I’ve been locking and checking my doors/windows too. I’ve gotten shaken up by my sensor lights a couple of times.


message 17: by Jack (new) - rated it 4 stars

Jack I question the value of even locking doors after reading this book.


Kemper Melissa wrote: "Did you see this??

https://jezebel.com/police-have-arres..."


Yep. That's why I floated this one again. I added a bit to the beginning about it.


Melissa Kemper wrote: "Melissa wrote: "Did you see this??

https://jezebel.com/police-have-arres..."

Yep. That's why I floated this one again. I added a bit to the beginning..."


Oh, ha! I didn't even see your edit at the beginning or that your review was up again, I just read this article & came right here to the comments to ask. I'm at work trying to explain to people who've never read the book how momentous this is.


Chantaal Great review! I'm already considering re-reading this immediately after hearing the good news yesterday, I'm STILL reeling.


Kemper Melissa wrote: "I'm at work trying to explain to people who've never read the book how momentous this is.

I've already said that I pity anyone who tries to talk to me about anything but GSK for the next couple of days.


Kemper Chantaal wrote: "Great review! I'm already considering re-reading this immediately after hearing the good news yesterday, I'm STILL reeling."

Thanks. I just saw that they're going to do some kind of update for the book in new editions of it.


message 24: by Mel (new) - rated it 4 stars

Mel Unbelievable! Hooray for justice, however late.


message 25: by James (new)

James Thane Nice to see that they got this guy; too bad she didn't live long enough to see it.


message 26: by Ellen (new) - added it

Ellen Klock I remembered this review when They announced it the other night and Patton gave his account to Stephen Colbert. I'm so glad you reposted this review with the "update". It's nice to know that eventually these monsters get caught. Even famous ones like Bill Cosby who get away with their personal fantasies (and our nightmares) for years. The fact that outside of these crimes they live standup lives as likeable fellows just makes their dastardly deeds that much worse.

A thank you to individuals like Michelle MacNamara whose tenacity didn't let these criminal acts go unchallenged. There's some cheering going on in heaven for her assistance in cracking this case.


message 27: by Chuck (new) - added it

Chuck White I know this is a few days late to state, but the minute I read the news of the killer's capture, I thought of you and wondered if you'd heard.

I definitely wanted to read the book, after reading your review (I'd never heard of this particular serial killer before), but I will admit I'm going to hold off for now as they are planning on releasing an updated edition that contains all these new developments.


Kemper Chuck wrote: " but I will admit I'm going to hold off for now as they are planning on releasing an updated edition that contains all these new developments...."

I'll want to check that out, too, but even though a whole lot will written about this guy in the future it's too bad that Michelle McNamara won't be one of the people who does it.


message 29: by Chuck (new) - added it

Chuck White I agree, it is sad that Ms. McNamara didn't get to see the fruits of her labour.


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