Hunting the Golden State Killer in I'll Be Gone in the Dark
How Michelle McNamara tracked a killer before her untimely death
Reviewed by Jonelle Seitz, Fri., July 20, 2018
Maybe it's the murderous heat that bumps off our better angels, but something about summer brings out the outlaw in the Chronicle crew. So we have decided July is Crime Month, and given our writers and editors license to celebrate the unlawful. For more reviews of crime fiction; author interviews; plugs for crime-related shows, screenings, podcasts, and events; and appreciations of classic crime sagas, go to austinchronicle.com/crime-month.
Michelle McNamara's persistent and painstaking sleuthing for answers about the serial killer and rapist known as the Golden State Killer (previously known as the East Area Rapist and the Original Night Stalker) is formidable. I'll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman's Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer chronicles the stones turned over by McNamara herself and the countless people she interviews – internet enthusiasts, detectives, surviving victims, neighbors – to find or eliminate connections between tall, large-calved, small-penised men (the main points of consistency in surviving victims' descriptions of him) and the macabre dots left spattered across California neighborhoods from the 1970s through the 1980s.
Joseph James DeAngelo, whose April 2018 arrest came less than two months after the book's publication, was a former police officer living quietly in Sacramento until he was identified as the chief suspect in the string of a dozen gruesome murders and 50 sickening rapes. McNamara, both a spelunker traveling deep within the caverns of the internet and a sociable Los Angeles journalist, was eager to interview anyone who had worked on the case, view decades-cold evidence, learn the history and limitations of DNA testing, and accept as homework the review of 37 boxes of copied police files, storing them in her daughter's playroom. No doubt she was obsessed with solving the case, and it's a chicken-or-egg question whether the anxiety for which she took a range of prescription amphetamines and sedatives, whose effects, in conjunction with an undiagnosed heart condition, killed her in her sleep before the book was complete, was the cause or an effect of her work.
Had McNamara lived to see the book to publication, it surely would have been very different. The first two sections, largely completed by McNamara, have the unevenness of an orphaned manuscript but are laced with quietly stark juxtapositions, domestic tranquility against the lurid and languid turns of phrase. Rolling paragraphs on historical context and sharp observations about criminologists and cops have a new journalism lilt. Just a few period details – iron bars on windows, tambourines tied to windows, silence on the other end of a landline receiver – invoke the terror of a too-quiet subdivision with dowel rods jammed in the tracks of all the patio doors. Without empathy, McNamara inquires about the similarities between the investigator and the killer: "Our frenetic searching mirrors the compulsive behavior – the trampled flowerbeds, scratch marks on window screens, crank calls – of the one we seek."
In the tentative hands of the book's stewards and collaborators – Paul Haynes and Billy Jensen, who completed the book; Gillian Flynn, who wrote the introduction; and McNamara's husband Patton Oswalt, who wrote the afterword – her intentions sail on wobbly surf, gently collaged into fruition. In the final third of the book, Haynes and Jensen alternate between marveling at McNamara's fortitude with details and attempting to provide synthesis and closure – impossible since DeAngelo remained at large until after the book's publication. Nevertheless, McNamara's presence, or the murderer's presence in her brain, like an elusive but looming parasite, continue to steer the book. Her ghost, at this point, is another elusive but certain presence.
If McNamara had lived to finish the book, how would it have been different? Most significantly, I think, the case would have continued to reside in McNamara's head, its narratives created by and entwined with her own, the parasite kept alive by its host. It's a terrible thing to wish for, so I won't. "There's a scream permanently lodged in my throat now," she wrote in Part Two, before recalling how, distracted and unwell, she swung a lamp at Oswalt, who had tiptoed into the room, trying not to wake her. Would DeAngelo's arrest have relieved McNamara from some of the burden of two decades of collective terror, the crime scene photos, the cold and nauseating evidence? Her outcome would have depended on her own narrative, which was DeAngelo's final victim.
I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killerby Michelle McNamara
Harper, 352 pp., $27.99