One writer’s obsession with a serial killer
Michelle McNamara was an obsessive. She also was a damn good writer. That combustive mix has produced I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer (Harper, 328 pp., ★★★☆), a dark page-turner about a serial rapist and killer with a tragic twist.
The Golden State Killer’s last victim was, in ways, the author herself. McNamara, who was married to comedian and actor Patton Oswalt, died at age 46 in 2016 as she was writing this book, felled by an arterial blockage exacerbated by medications that helped her battle ailments including insomnia.
You wouldn’t sleep either if you lived in the haunted world described in Dark.
From the mid-1970s to the ’80s, a man sneaked into homes across California and committed more than 50 rapes and 10 murders. Dubbed by local law enforcement the East Area Rapist — many of his crimes happened in eastern Sacramento — he was never caught.
McNamara, a TV writer (and dedicated amateur criminologist who started the website True Crime Diaries), spent years tracking the killer, whom she called the Golden State Killer, or GSK.
The author befriended equally obsessed cops, cased victims’ homes to try to determine a pattern and used the Internet to build an army of fellow Nancy Drews.
Frustrations abounded. A lack of technology in the ’70s perhaps helped the killer get away; an abundance of modern crime-busting tech, foremost DNA testing, cleared the most promising suspects in recent years.
And still McNamara pressed on, like a mathematician obsessed with solving a theorem or an archaeologist bent on finding a lost civilization.
If there is a criticism about McNamara’s otherwise scintillating work, it’s the book’s disjointed structure. We rocket back to the past for the crimes and zip to the present for conversations with experts. We race up and down California incessantly.
The antidote, however, is McNamara’s poignant prose. You turn the pages just to see which revealing gem you’ll be presented with next.
Here’s McNamara on a killer’s mind: “He’s the maltreated hero in the story. Staring up at him anguish-eyed is a rotating cast of terrified faces. His distorted belief system operates around a central, vampiric tenet.”
McNamara was with Oswalt for 13 years, but she lived with GSK.
While McNamara had assembled much of the book before her death, it was finished with the help of her lead researcher, Paul Haynes, and investigative journalist Billy Jensen, who gained access to their friend’s 3,500 computer files on the GSK case.
Despite her sleuthing, McNamara did not identify the killer. Her collaborators offer a solemn promise: “We will not stop until we get his name.”
In his afterword, Oswalt — who has undertaken publicity duties for Dark — hints the next generation of GSK sleuths may be close to home.
He describes the couple’s now 8-year-old daughter, Alice, opening a Christmas present that contained a digital camera. She was pleased with the gift but something nagged.
“Later that morning, she asked, out of the blue, ‘Daddy, why do you and Santa Claus have the same handwriting?’
“Michelle Eileen McNamara is gone. But she left behind a little detective. And a mystery.”
Author Michelle McNamara