One writer’s ob­ses­sion with a se­rial killer

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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

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