Matt's Reviews > I'll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman's Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer

I'll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara
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bookshelves: crime, journalism, true-crime

“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.”

- Michelle McNamara, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark

The story behind this story is both sad and fascinating.

Michelle McNamara was a renowned true crime writer who ran a popular blog dedicated to cold cases. One of her main targets was a man she dubbed the Golden State Killer, a serial rapist who dabbled in murder. His tally includes at least ten deaths, and more than fifty sexual assaults. She was in the process of writing a book on the GSK, whose crimes remained unsolved, when she died quite suddenly in 2016. The unfinished manuscript was published posthumously as I’ll Be Gone in the Dark in February 2018, some two years after McNamara’s death.

It was an incomplete book about an incomplete investigation. But there was one more twist in store: about two months after publication, they caught the guy.

With a back-story like that, it’s hard to judge I’ll Be Gone in the Dark. This is a book, after all, that lacks two endings: one written, the other substantive. This is the skeleton of a masterpiece, and had it been finished, might have become a classic. As it is, it is still very good, and demonstrates, as Capote did with In Cold Blood, that the true crime genre does not have to limit itself to the traditional murder mystery format.

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is not structured chronologically. Certainly, it is not written as a prosecutor’s brief, systematically tracking the killer, marshaling evidence, and zeroing in on a suspect. Instead, McNamara (and I’m assuming this is what she intended) moves back and forth in time. Parts of this are biographical, discussing her relationship with her mother, and examining her own obsession with crimes and criminals. Parts of this are historical, describing the Golden State Killer’s crimes in chilling fashion. And part of this is about the thrill of the chase, and the efforts McNamara undertook to try to find the man who terrorized swaths of California in the 70s and 80s.

McNamara is an incredibly powerful writer. She takes care with her prose. As you can see from the opening quote, she knows how to grab you by the lapels and demand your attention. Her reconstructions of the GSK’s numerous break-ins are very good; she describes them in powerful and precise detail that never feels prurient. She is impressively incisive and observant, not just about the unidentified killer, but about the dogged detectives she meets along her journey. Her descriptions of where the crimes took place, and the way she evokes the various targeted neighborhoods, is excellent. And she can turn a phrase or two, describing things in a lively way:

Most violent criminals smash through life like human sledgehammers. They have fists for hands and can’t plan beyond their sightlines. They’re caught easily. They talk too much. They return to the scene of the crime, as conspicuous as tin cans on a bumper. But every so often a blue moon surfaces. A snow leopard slinks by.

I appreciated the book’s structure, especially since McNamara’s literary skill makes even the potentially-banal interesting. However, in moving back and forth as she does, the reader is required to pay close attention in order not to get lost. This issue is compounded by the fact that the Golden State Killer had as many names as a character in a Russian novel (East Area Rapist, East Area Rapist-Original Nightstalker, the Ransacker, etc.), and the book does not refer to him in any consistent way.

I truly believe, had McNamara finished this as she planned, this might have been an all-timer, a genre transcending work. Life, however, is cruel to our plans and projects. The fact is, this was not finished, and though that is not necessarily fatal (one of my favorite books, Young Men and Fire, is also a posthumous release), the downsides are evident. There are certain chapters cobbled together from her previous writings, some of them already published. Thus, if you’ve read McNamara before, you might come across stuff that seems awfully familiar. And of course, the end is quite abrupt, a line that ends midsentence.

Some of the people that McNamara worked with do their best to provide an epilogue. All this really does, however, is demonstrate once again how good McNamara wrote. More than that, this end-section, written by Paul Haynes and Billy Jensen, advances some extremely troubling views vis-à-vis the trashing of civil liberties in pursuit of a single criminal suspect. I like to think that McNamara would have thought a little deeper about this subject.

(Just a brief aside: obsessives often lose perspective. McNamara was smart enough to recognize this within herself. Accordingly, it is worth noting, because this book does not, that while this is true crime, it is not typical crime. The most pressing criminal justice issues facing our society do not come from the lone, clever, Hollywood-esque serial killer with the dark quips and the furiously studied modus operandi. Rather, it comes from concentrated poverty, depressed mobility, and communities awash in guns and drugs. It comes from overcrowded prisons, unfair sentencing laws, and neighborhoods that do not trust law enforcement. So, while I definitely recommend I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, it is also worth making time for a book like Ghettoside or The Corner).

By this point, most people know that a suspect has been arrested for these crimes. Unfortunately, this happened well after McNamara passed away, meaning that I’ll Be Gone in the Dark does not cover this ultimate surprise ending.

That does not matter. In short: no killer, no problem. The best true crime understands that while the pursuit of justice motivates the hunt, it will not make things whole. Catching the alleged Golden State Killer (a 72 year-old man) may be cathartic, but it does not sew up the tears in heaven. It will not bring back the dead, un-traumatize the traumatized, or even prevent another crime. The search itself, though, is revealing about human nature. It speaks to a driving need to understand the incomprehensible, and to seek a cosmic balance in a universe that does not care.
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Reading Progress

Started Reading
July 29, 2018 – Shelved
July 29, 2018 – Finished Reading
August 6, 2018 – Shelved as: crime
August 6, 2018 – Shelved as: journalism
August 6, 2018 – Shelved as: true-crime

Comments Showing 1-8 of 8 (8 new)

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William French She also predicted how he would be caught, viz., by accessing a DNA database like 123 or Maybe she’s the person who came up with the idea, who knows. After all, the police had his DNA almost from the very beginning.

Linds Do you have thoughts about the use of familiar DNA to catch criminals?

message 3: by Carol (new) - added it

Carol Even though there were loose ends in her book when Michelle McNamara passed away, I still think this will be a true crime classic.

The question of using DNA in this way is an interesting one. I listen to many genealogy podcasts and most feel this is fair use. I have no problem with it myself.

Will Byrnes Great job

Matt Linds wrote: "Do you have thoughts about the use of familiar DNA to catch criminals?"

If it is done as a fishing expedition, rather than a targeted search with consent, then I think it is very, very worrisome.

I don't like the idea of private companies (not just DNA companies, but cell phone companies), turning over all my data (which they have promised to protect) whenever a detective comes knocking.

My wife really wanted to do 23 and Me, so I got it for her birthday. I would not do it again. If these companies are going to make this extremely sensitive information open to anyone who asks, then they should say, in big bold letters: THIS IS NOT PRIVATE.

It will be interesting to see how this shakes out in court, since the Supreme Court's cell-phone jurisprudence is getting murkier by the day.

Matt Will wrote: "Great job"

Thanks, Will!

message 7: by Vheissu (new)

Vheissu Matt wrote: "The most pressing criminal justice issues facing our society do not come from the lone, clever, Hollywood-esque serial killer with the dark quips and the furiously studied modus operandi. Rather, it comes from concentrated poverty, depressed mobility, and communities awash in guns and drugs. It comes from overcrowded prisons, unfair sentencing laws, and neighborhoods that do not trust law enforcement. "

Great review, Matt, and great insight.

Christina McLain Sooo Canada we are now faced with a proliferation of gun crimes. But though I believe in control its not the answer to gang warfare or domestic violence..the causes are rooted in the lives of desperate, usually young, men who feel powerless and forgotten..sad sad sad but the tale of the serial killer still fascinates. It haunts us still.

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