Until a friend mentioned her obsession with true crime stories and named the Golden State Killer in passing, I had only ever read one book from the genre. That book was “In Cold Blood,” and it gave me the heebie-jeebies. When I read Truman Capote’s tale of the Clutter family murder I lived alone, in a little first-floor apartment that I not-so-affectionately refer to as Big Brother House. Because I knew of the rumors that parts of Capote’s book were fabricated, I could distance myself from the cruelty of the story.
That was not the case with “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark.”
I came up on the waitlist for Michelle McNamara’s book just shy of two months after the alleged Golden State Killer was caught. Her account of his crimes, and the exhaustive search for him that began with the first known attack in June 1976, is stunning and powerful. To begin the book she lays all the cards on the table by describing the attacks. She outlines the unimaginable horror encountered by his victims, the turning point at which the crimes switched from home invasion and rape to double homicide, the cruel calling cards and key signs that the same perpetrator was at play. Then she introduces the reader to the investigators, and ever so slowly, to herself.
We learn that McNamara became intrigued with criminal cases at a young age, when she was growing up outside of Chicago. She shows us her aptitude for storytelling and for piecing together facts, personalities, and context while making it look absolutely effortless. Her voice is descriptive and engaging, a guiding force for a book that, as it was being written, had no ending.
I began to read “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark” while my husband was away on business. That was a gigantic mistake. She weaves together the different personas that the attacker has had over the years–the Visalia Ransacker, the Original Night Stalker, the East Area Rapist. Even though I was reading in broad daylight, the unflinching accounts of attacks against women in their own homes was too much. The details were too finely drawn and based on stringent research from police reports; the attacks so personal and vengeful and premeditated that my blood was chilled even on hot summer evenings. At night, while my husband was in California (where the attacks took place) and I was safely in our house in Rhode Island, I could not stop thinking of a bad guy with no face breaking into our first floor windows. So I put the book away.
A week or so later I picked it up again and finished within two days. The time would have been less but we were on vacation, visiting family. After McNamara teamed up with other internet researchers who were searching for the killer, I was hooked. “When I logged on to the EAR-ONS board for the first time, I was immediately struck by the capable, exhaustive crowdsourcing being done there,” McNamara writes. As a highly competent researcher and investigator with a well-respected true crime blog, McNamara gained access to more paperwork and people than your typical amateur sleuth. In one section her research partner gleefully recounts gaining access to over 60 bankers boxes worth of files, which McNamara referred to as “The Mother Lode.” She was allowed to borrow what she needed, so they transported over half the boxes from the Orange County Sheriff’s Department in a convoy, moving as quickly as they could in case anyone at the office changed their minds. These materials had been unseen by event current researchers, those who were currently employed by any department for which they wore a badge.
While she was not a detective, McNamara had passion. That drive propelled her forward into the case, and she was receiving guidance and insight from active and retired members of the force alike. As she heard their accounts, she formulated a troubling question of her own: Why didn’t more neighbors say something about their homes being cased? Why wasn’t the information volunteered, when police came around after an attack, that a prowler had been spotted or that strange items had been found in nearby drainage ditches? She wanted to blame the culture of the 70’s, but then had her own personal experience, which surprised her.
Sadly McNamara passed away two years before a suspect was apprehended. The name she coined to encompass the reign of terror he had held for a decade across the state of California was assigned to a 72 year old man that was led from his home in Citrus Heights California in “bracelets.”
I love for this book to be re-released with an afterword from McNamara, in which she tells readers how she dealt with the emotions of triumph and justice that came from using technology to find this man hiding in plain sight, living a normal retiree’s life with his daughter and granddaughter. Instead, we are left with her words describing what it’s like to keep searching: “Seeking is the lever that tips our dopamine gush. What I don’t mention is the uneasy realization I’ve had about how much our frenetic searching mirrors the compulsive behavior–the trampled flowerbeds, scratch marks on window screens, crank calls–of the one we seek.”