“That summer I hunted the serial killer at night from my daughter’s playroom,” writes author Michelle McNamara in her first sentence of her true crime novel. Before she starts, McNamara’s work is introduced by mystery/thriller novelist Gillian Flynn, famous for the novel “Gone Girl.”
Flynn writes, “I read only the best [true crime]: writers who are dogged, insightful, humane. It was inevitable that I would find Michelle.”
I knew that I wanted to read Michelle McNamara’s “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer” even before the alleged killer was caught on April 24, 2018.
McNamara actually died in 2016, before “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark” was finished, and long before alleged murderer Joseph DeAngelo was caught by the California police. But McNamara’s popularity as a true crime journalist reinvigorated popular and police interest in the killer – she even came up with his title, “the Golden State Killer,” which the police called him when they announced his arrest.
McNamara’s 300-plus page true crime book constructs a narrative that weaves together her detailed research on the crime using interviews with victims and officers, methods and a window into her own mind. It’s a non-fiction book, but it doesn’t read like non-fiction.
McNamara writes about the Golden State Killer’s 50 rapes and 10 murders with careful detail. Unlike some true crime writers, she does not act as a tragedy voyeur: instead, she is persistently empathetic in her portrayal of crimes and victims. As Flynn described, she is dogged, insightful and humane.
McNamara also offers the reader a view into her own life. She discusses the psychological toll that hunting a serial killer took on her, her awkwardness at Hollywood premier events with her husband Patton Oswalt, and her origins as a true crime journalist and as a person. The part of the book that made me most emotional was when McNamara describes her relationship with her mother, their differences and similarities. She is honest, not only about the crimes she covers, but also about her own life.
I was fully engrossed in the details of the plot, reading “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark” even at times when I really, really shouldn’t have. I totally freaked myself out in my empty townhouse one night and had to triple-check the locks on every window.
But it was so worth it – McNamara’s book, finished after her death by her research team and editors, was incredible. If you have any interest in true crime at all, you should read “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark.”
If you want a taste of McNamara’s writing, you can read an excerpt from “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark” in the New Yorker. “Letter to the Golden State Killer” appears in the book as the chapter “Letter to an Old Man.”
When DeAngelo was arrested for the crimes, McNamara’s widower Oswalt tweeted, “If they’ve really caught the #GoldenStateKiller I hope I get to visit him. Not to gloat or to gawk, but to ask him the questions that [McNamara] wanted answered in her “Letter to an Old Man” at the end of #IllBeGoneintheDark.”