Sometimes a book in your read-me-next list jumps to the front of the pack. I read the news reports like everyone else, a month ago, April 25, 2018—the Golden State Killer had finally been arrested. Over thirty years since his last likely murder, authorities arrested a suspect, 72-year-old Sacramento resident Joseph James DeAngelo, a former police officer, based on DNA evidence. I thought to myself: it’s time to read that book by Michelle McNamara, before I read anything else.
I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer chronicles McNamara’s tireless research into the then-cold case of the serial killer (and rapist and burglar) that she dubbed the Golden State Killer, a moniker now solidified by recent media attention. While I’m not a true-crime buff, I am a lover of research and storytelling and problem-solving, and McNamara’s journey is thoughtfully told, somehow incredibly informative without ever being lurid or sensational. She never exploits or re-victimizes the people who had the misfortune to experience the mystifying, seemingly random violence of the Golden State Killer. The events in the book are not detailed chronologically from the Killer’s perspective, either, which would be more expected. This structure of the presentation of events seems to de-center and deflate the Killer, which is poetic, considering his need for control. Truly, this book is not really about him.
We read about his crimes in different geographic areas of law enforcement, between 1974 and 1986, and how different agencies put together that the crimes in their area might be committed by one offender. And then, occurring much later, we read how investigators realized how all these offenders (the East Area Rapist, the Original Night Stalker, the Visalia Ransacker, etc.) might be one extremely prolific criminal, that we now know as the Golden State Killer. McNamara details the protocols of investigations, and how they were changing, especially related to DNA collection and testing. She also did copious research herself, and interviews other researchers, amateur and professional, for a fascinating look into the minds of those who try to solve crimes.
McNamara died before she could complete the book. I didn’t know much about her or her writing career before she died. I was familiar with the work of her husband, Patton Oswalt, having enjoyed reading his books and watching his stand-up routines. McNamara was well-known in true crime circles for her blog TrueCrimeDiary, which focused on—you guessed it—true crime and cold cases, an interest she had ever since the unsolved murder of a teenager in her neighborhood as a child. When she died unexpectedly in 2016, McNamara had mostly completed the book, and had written many articles about the case and made extensive notes. The book was completed, faithful to its original intent, by a true crime writer she had worked with previously (Paul Haynes) and Oswalt. The editors have made it very clear what was written by her, what was transcribed from her notes and recordings, what was adapted from her published articles, and so on.
The book was released in February 2018, and it was the story of its posthumous publication that attracted me to it at first. Then HBO purchased the rights, and I was even more interested. And you already know what happened on April 25, 2018.
The title sounds like an odd choice, but when you read the chapter it comes from—a letter McNamara wrote to the Killer, about his eventual capture that she was certain would occur, written long before April 25,, 2018—you’ll understand why it was chosen for the title.
Of interest to library workers: using WorldCat as a research tool, on p 269, in a chapter called “The One.” In this engrossing chapter, we read about the “one” suspect on which various investigators each fixated, how they were each sure they had finally figured out who their suspect was, and then how all the different “ones” were ruled out. (Sidney, Nebraska is also mentioned on p 269—but don’t worry, just read the chapter.)
Also of interest to Nebraskans: the epigraph is a poem by Weldon Kees, “Crime Club.” It helps set an eerie tone for a book as much about the people solving a crime as it is about crime or a criminal. Sure, after you finish the book, you’ll probably want to dive into the news reports about Joseph James DeAngelo. (There’s plenty to read about him already, and more will come out when we get closer to a trial.)
But you might also take a little time to appreciate Weldon Kees. And look into the mystery of his disappearance, if you choose. Or just enjoy some of his poetry.