When my dear friend Cathal handed me a copy of I’ll Be Gone In The Dark, I literally squealed with delight. I’d been desperate to read it ever since I did my initial binge-listen to every episode of the My Favorite Murder podcast (reminder: I reviewed the hosts’ joint memoir Stay Sexy And Don’t Get Murdered, also a gift from Cathal, here). But I exercised some restraint, and held onto it until I felt I really… “needed” it. That’s the definition of adulthood, isn’t it? Delayed gratification? Okay, maybe it’s a bit whacky that my gratification comes from a gritty true crime novel, but whatever. I am what I am, and what I am is a true crime junkie. I’ve made my peace with it.
The back-cover summary for I’ll Be Gone In The Dark promises “a masterful true crime account of the Golden State Killer – the elusive serial rapist turned murderer who terrorised California for over a decade – from Michelle McNamara, a gifted journalist who died tragically while still writing and researching her debut book”. It also features glowing endorsements from Stephen King and Gillian Flynn, once again lending credence to the idea that the truth can be stranger (and better) than fiction.
The story of I’ll Be Gone In The Dark has received almost as much attention as the crimes it covers. It all began with McNamara’s blog (True Crime Diary, still online here), and an article she wrote for the LA Times in 2013. At that time, the series of rapes and murders attributed to the Golden State Killer were still a decades-old cold case, with files stretching across multiple jurisdictions and decades. McNamara sadly died, aged just 46, with the manuscript of this book only two-thirds done.
It was completed after her death by the lead researcher and a close colleague (Paule Haynes, and Billy Jensen), and her husband (Patton Oswalt) wrote a touching afterword in her honour. These contributors added footnotes to clarify or expand upon what McNamara had written before her death, rather than editorialising in an attempt to produce a “polished” story. They don’t ignore or gloss over McNamara’s passing, and they don’t falsely emulate her style or voice – it’s always clear to the reader what was McNamara’s work, and what was their logical continuation. On occasion, they cobbled together crucial sections from her notes and blog posts, making it clear to the reader that they had done so. I really liked this approach; it seemed more respectful, to both McNamara and the reader, than any alternative. I’ll Be Gone In The Dark was ultimately published posthumously, in 2018, two years after McNamara’s death.
Even though the book is definitively true crime, it has a more literary bent than most offerings you’d find at airport bookshops. It crosses over into memoir at times, with McNamara offering up her own family history to explain how she came to have an interest in true crime and this particular case. It’s not schlocky, sensationalist true crime, but it’s still compulsively readable. It would seem that the one concession the publishers made to the tropes of the genre were the glossy photograph inserts: smiling photographs of the victims and their families, yearbook photos, neighbourhoods where crimes took place, evidence bags, and police sketches.
McNamara doesn’t shy away from her own role in bringing the case to worldwide public attention; she’s not braggy, but she doesn’t downplay it either. She wasn’t “just lucky”. She, and a group of like-minded armchair detectives, kept the case alive through hard work, persistence, and determination. In fact, it was McNamara who coined the “Golden State Killer” moniker. Prior to that, given that the culprit had undertaken three separate crime sprees with little to connect them, the press had given him three different nicknames (including the East Area Rapist, and the Original Night Stalker). The public, understandably, got the impression that these were different perpetrators, until McNamara came along and started connecting dots on their behalf.
The crimes (over one hundred burglaries, at least fifty sexual assaults, and at least thirteen murders) were all committed long before the DNA testing and lab analysis we have today. “By the time DNA testing revealed that crimes previously thought to be unrelated were the work of one man,” McNamara says on page 4, “more than a decade had passed since his last known murder, and his capture wasn’t a priority”. More than eight thousand suspects were investigated as part of the Golden State Killer case, but when McNamara started her blog, the police still had nothing.
It’s near impossible to wrap your head around the magnitude, severity, and sheer volume of crimes committed by the Golden State Killer, and McNamara doesn’t even attempt to lay out the facts of the case(s) in any linear fashion. I can’t even imagine how difficult it would have been to try to capture the scope and relate the details of all of these crimes, because there were just so many – and, being an unsolved case with no leads at the time of writing, it’s not like there were trial documents or police interviews to verify information against. McNamara and her publishers helpfully included, in the front of I’ll Be Gone In The Dark a timeline, a map, and – most importantly, in my view, a list of victims and investigators. That’s something I wish we saw more in true crime: front-and-center focus on victims, and the people who work to bring them justice.
That said, the title is drawn from a threat the killer made to one of his early victims:
“… a man in a leather hood entered the window of a house in Citrus. Heights and sneaked up on a sixteen-year-old girl watching television alone in the den. He pointed a knife at her and issued a chilling warning: ‘Make one move and you’ll be silent forever and I’ll be gone in the dark,’.”Page 60-61
Still, because the killer hadn’t been identified at the time of writing, I’ll Be Gone In The Dark by default avoids exploiting the victims or overtly revering the serial rapist and murderer (the way that true crime books about, say, Ted Bundy, tend to).
I’ll Be Gone In The Dark topped the New York Times Best Seller List for non-fiction, and remained there for fifteen weeks. HBO subsequently purchased the film rights, and a six-part documentary series was released earlier this year. But, of course, the big clincher is this: since the time of publication, the Golden State Killer has been caught. His identification and arrest was controversial, as it occurred through the use of DNA evidence matched against samples provided to a genealogy website. What’s even more stunning is that McNamara foresaw this: in I’ll Be Gone In The Dark, her notes point to her intention to find a way of running the killer’s DNA through 23AndMe or Ancestry.com.
Obviously, there are all kinds of scary ethical questions raised by this type of investigation, but I won’t explore them here. All I’ll say is, just this once, I’m glad it worked. The culprit has been sentenced to life in prison, without the possibility of parole, after pleading guilty to multiple counts of murder and kidnapping (he cannot be charged on counts of rapes he committed in the 1970s, as the statute of limitations has passed – boo to that!).
I’ll Be Gone In The Dark, though, concludes with a letter from McNamara to the then-unidentified killer. In it, she personally implores him to step into the light. It gave me literal goosebumps – and I still can’t help but wonder what went through his mind when he read it (as he undoubtedly has).
I’ve heard some readers complain that reading I’ll Be Gone In The Dark is less captivating now that the “case is solved”. I would argue that, if that’s the case, you’re reading it for different reasons than I am. I read this book to learn about a woman’s pursuit of justice, to understand the horrors wrought upon the women who were victimised by one terrible man, to get some insight into how fifty years can go by without an answer being found. I’m not here to gawp at a cold case (and if you are, no worries, there are plenty of other true crime books out there for you). But if you’re anything like me, if any of those motives sound more appealing to you than simple scares and shock factor, then I’ll Be Gone In The Dark is the book for you, as it was for me.
I don’t often include plugs at the end of my book reviews, but given the nature and content of this one, I feel it’s warranted. U.S. Keeper Upperers, I know there’s a lot of you – consider throwing some support towards End The Backlog, who aim to eliminate the atrocious backlog of untested rape kits across your country and prevent such a backlog from ever building up again. For Keeper Upperers elsewhere, look into your local or state-based sexual assault support services, I’m sure they could use your backing, too!
My favourite Amazon reviews of I’ll Be Gone In The Dark:
- “This book legit gave me nightmares. 10/10 would recommend.” – Justin Marshal Kirkpatrick
- “I don’t understand the reviews for this book. I found it to be dull and boring. My favorite true crime books read like a novel. This book is stale and full of percentages.” – siansays