Review: I’ll Be Gone in the Dark – Michelle McNamara

Confession:  I love true crime.  I’ve always been interested in it, but it wasn’t until I started listening to this podcast called My Favorite Murder that I truly faced the fact that I am, without a doubt, a Murderino (as they call it).  I follow all kinds of stories of murder and have a fascination with the CSI-style true crime shows (like Forensic Files, and things of that ilk).

I’ve never read, and I mean, really read a true crime novel.  A couple years ago, I started Ann Rule’s ‘A Stranger Beside Me’ (about Ted Bundy), but I really couldn’t get into it.  It was the right subject, but the voice was wrong some how.

N.B. I am NOT slamming Ann Rule. She’s a fine writer.

My problem with true crime novels is that the narration just seems off.  Sometimes it’s too clinical and detached; and sometimes it romanticises the wrong parts of the story.

Michelle McNamara’s book about the Golden State Killer had recently started to get a lot of lip service.  It was finally finished and released after her untimely death and critics were raving about it.

So I set aside my true crime trepidation and picked up a copy.

I can say that the most important point that I can make about this book is that McNamara doesn’t write like your typical true crime novelist.  She has a certain poesy with her narration; the cadence of it, the descriptions seem clear and she has a acerbic biting sense of humour lurking behind the words.  Like this description of a neighbourhood in Irvine, which became the scene of one of the attacks

Irvine’s motto, goes the joke, is “sixteen zip codes, six floor plans.” Or “Irvine:  we have sixty-two words for beige.”

McNamara also does justice to the descriptions of the victims, which bizarrely are sometimes flat and not memorable compared to the perpetrator in other true crime novels.  I felt like she wanted me to get to know each of them as people, rather than mere statistics.

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is a product of McNamara’s obsession with finding the Golden State Killer (also dubbed ‘East Area Rapist’ and ‘Original Night Stalker’) who had been at large for 40 years at the time of publishing.  She’s already a truly gifted writer, and then marries up her talent with her obsession, which you can see in this poignant description she gives about her endless searching:

As I’ve said, falling for a suspect is a lot like the first surge of blind love in a relationship.  Focus narrows to a single face.  The world and its practical sounds are a wan soundtrack to the powerful silent biopic you’re editing in your mind at all times.  No amount of information on the object of your obsession is enough.  You crave more.

With a wry twist in timing, shortly after the release of I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, the authorities announced they had arrested a man they believed to be the Golden State Killer.  It is with elation but a heavy heart that fans of McNamara rejoiced in his capture and many, her husband included, lamented that McNamara was not alive to see it or to know how much her own sleuthing had contributed to his arrest.

I imagine (hope?) that there will be an amendment added to future editions of the book to include the information about the suspect’s arrest.  But for the moment, McNamara finishes the novel with a letter to an old man, written to the Golden State Killer who was, at that time, still out there somewhere.

It’s a chilling confrontation, bordering on threat and a perfect ending to the book.

On the dust jacket

For more than ten years, a mysterious and violent predator committed fifty sexual assaults in Northern California before moving south, where he perpetrated ten sadistic murders. Then he disappeared, eluding capture by multiple police forces and some of the best detectives in the area.

Three decades later, Michelle McNamara, a true crime journalist who created the popular website, was determined to find the violent psychopath she called “the Golden State Killer.” Michelle pored over police reports, interviewed victims, and embedded herself in the online communities that were as obsessed with the case as she was.

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark—the masterpiece McNamara was writing at the time of her sudden death—offers an atmospheric snapshot of a moment in American history and a chilling account of a criminal mastermind and the wreckage he left behind. It is also a portrait of a woman’s obsession and her unflagging pursuit of the truth. Utterly original and compelling, it has been hailed as a modern true crime classic—one which fulfilled Michelle’s dream: helping unmask the Golden State Killer.

About Michelle McNamara

Michelle McNamara (1970-2016) was the author of the website She earned an MFA in fiction writing from the University of Minnesota and had sold television pilots to ABC and Fox, and a screenplay to Paramount. She also worked as a consultant for Dateline NBC. She lived in Los Angeles and is survived by her husband, Patton Oswalt, and their daughter, Alice.



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