Review: I’ll Be Gone In The Dark by Michelle McNamara

Reviewed by Jennifer Jenkins

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cover of i'll be gone in the dark, house and trees at night“You’ll be silent forever, and I’ll be gone in the dark.”

The killer delivered this threat to one of his victims, a particularly relevant note in Michelle McNamara’s mind. With his pristine planning and stalking, his careful research into family details, and his endless patience with panicked victims who never saw a face, the world was his. What he didn’t count on were the advances in DNA technology, or the dogged, relentless need McNamara had to find him. She investigates these crimes in a book she named after that chilling phrase: I’ll Be Gone In the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer (Harper, February 2018).

The Golden State Killer, as the author dubbed him, terrorized California for 10 years in the 1970s and 80s. Also referred to as the East Area Rapist and the Original Night Stalker, he targeted middle class neighborhoods, arriving soundlessly and usually departing effortlessly without a trace. His stealth attacks included forcing men to lay face down and placing a teacup on their back, threatening to kill their wife or children if he heard the tinkling of china that meant they’d moved while he raped the women. He frequently threatened to return, and women he attacked lived with the fear for decades; he called one of them 24 years after he brutalized her to ask if she wanted to “play” again. As he grew bolder, rapes turned to murders, frequently of couples, many times in their own beds.

The true tragedy of Michelle McNamara’s death is the loss of a powerful and caring writer. She was a twist of Truman Capote’s stark reality with a swirl of Stephen King’s familiar characters in evil circumstances. She painstakingly details her search to identify the Golden State Killer as she gently breathes life back into his victims, presenting people instead of statistics. She writes of people we know, our favorite waitresses and high school teachers and bank tellers. She tenderly exposes feelings of anticipation and dread that we all feel. “What is the lasting damage when you believe the warm spot you were just sleeping in will be your grave? Time sands the edges of the injuries, but they never lose their hold.”

McNamara was a true crime writer who worked in film and television, as a consultant with Dateline NBC, and wrote an article for Los Angeles Magazine called “In the Footsteps of A Killer” that led to her book. She created the website True Crime Diary as a means to reach out to others and share details on cases. Police were often hesitant to share files, either out of vanity at being the one to crack a case, or out of embarrassment at the messy sludge their cases had become. If you have ever been involved in a homicide case, as I have, you understand the frustration of working with police departments you suspect are holding back, the exhilaration over a possible hidden clue like a pair of cufflinks, and the determination to keep the case alive and solve this murder. McNamara covers it all flawlessly.

McNamara died in April of 2016 with her book still unfinished. Her husband, actor Patton Oswalt, called upon researchers and journalists to help him finalize the book. He also enlisted author Gillian Flynn to write the introduction. The book was published in February of 2018, and Joseph James DeAngelo was arrested in April of 2018 and charged with eight counts of first-degree murder due to DNA evidence, though the toll of his crime spree is much higher, with a suspected 12 murders and over 50 rapes. It was McNamara’s drive that sparked the ongoing investigation leading to the arrest of a serial rapist and killer. Her superb writing brought the victims back to us, for a while, and her fierce determination ensures that many of those women can now rest easier, knowing he’s no longer out there in the dark.

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