Book Notes: The hunt for a killer, soon to be found
“I’ll Be Gone In The Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer” By Michelle McNamara. HarperCollins, 2018. 328 pages. $27.99
The true crime book, “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer,” was published just before police surprised everyone by identifying the infamous killer known to have terrorized California neighborhoods from Sacramento in the north to Santa Barbara to the south. Police have linked him to 46 brazen sexual assaults and 12 murders in a 10-year span. His behavior was bizarre and his methods sadistic. His crime spree stopped in 1986 and he remained dormant and unknown for 32 years.
Already a bestseller, “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark” is a testament to author Michelle McNamara’s obsession with the madman we now know is ex-police officer James DeAngelo Jr. She was up front about the time, energy and expense that her true crime fascination demanded of her and her family. Author of the popular website True Crime Diary, she also wrote television pilots, screenplays and articles.
As many readers already know, McNamara died in her sleep before completing the book. Her husband, comedian Patton Oswalt, had a hand in pulling together the massive research project, getting it shaped into a book and finding a publisher. McNamara was only 46-years-old when she died in 2016, layering more intrigue and misfortune onto this grim story.
The book is both more and less interesting because of its timing. It’s more interesting because true crime enthusiasts can now sort through the pages of McNamara’s reporting and apply it to what is now known. It’s a tempting exercise but it takes effort.
At the same time, the book is less interesting because the 328-page evidence dump does not point to any one person’s identity. McNamara and other investigators did not have any compelling hunches as to the killer’s identity. The book is perplexing and frustrating. When I pick it up to read, I feel as if I’m immersed in a mystery that’s driving me straight into the ubiquitous California fog. I know now that the killer is DeAngelo, but as a reader I’m groping about in a cloud of detail that suggests little beyond evil.
The narrative thread is missing. After McNamara died, others stepped in to fit together McNamara’s completed writings, her rough drafts and previously published articles on the subject. But the transitions, organization and chronology don’t coalesce in a driving storyline.
Which makes the book that much sadder. McNamara, known to be a talented writer, didn’t have the opportunity to shape her work into the story she imagined. She gathered impressive quotes and pursued myriad clues but never had the chance to step back and add the perspective that transforms details into story.
In those instances where we get the full measure of her talent, we are thrilled. She writes: “Violent criminals … who escalate to homicide are not only rare but also so varied that generalizing about their backgrounds and behavior is unwise. But common themes do exist. The future nightmare maker begins as an adolescent daydreamer. His world is bisected; violent fantasies act as a muffler against a harsh, disappointing reality. Perceived threats to his self-esteem are disproportionately internalized. Grievances are collected. He rubs his fingers over old scars.”
What makes a fantasizer cross over, she wonders. “An emotional match is lit. The daydreamer steps out of his trance and into a stranger’s house.”
— Rae Padilla Francoeur can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.