4 star, adult

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

A masterful true crime account of the Golden State Killer—the elusive serial rapist turned murderer who terrorized California for over a decade—from Michelle McNamara, the gifted journalist who died tragically while investigating the case.

“You’ll be silent forever, and I’ll be gone in the dark.”

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 TrueCrimeDiary.com, 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.

At the time of the crimes, the Golden State Killer was between the ages of eighteen and thirty, Caucasian, and athletic—capable of vaulting tall fences. He always wore a mask. After choosing a victim—he favored suburban couples—he often entered their home when no one was there, studying family pictures, mastering the layout. He attacked while they slept, using a flashlight to awaken and blind them. Though they could not recognize him, his victims recalled his voice: a guttural whisper through clenched teeth, abrupt and threatening.

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. Framed by an introduction by Gillian Flynn and an afterword by her husband, Patton Oswalt, the book was completed by Michelle’s lead researcher and a close colleague. Utterly original and compelling, it is destined to become a true crime classic—and may at last unmask the Golden State Killer. 

I don’t often (or ever, really) foray into true crime because it’s hard to know these are real families’ tragedies and pains that I’m reading about. These are very real people whose lives were upended and very real hurt that may still haunt those that remain to this day.

But I will say that there is a certain appeal to I’ll Be Gone in the Dark that made it such a bestseller when it first came out. I remember seeing it on the shelves at the time as I was still a bookseller then. It drew people in and I couldn’t fathom why. The killer hadn’t even been caught and isn’t that what should matter most? Where is the justice? It’s like a whodunnit story without the ending.

Then I picked up this gem years later and I can totally understand why it drew people as it did. It’s the work of a marvellous writer who not only knew the subject matter of these crimes inside and out, but she cared about the victims and their families too. It wasn’t about the fame or to glorify the inhumane acts done to another human being. It wasn’t even to focus on the killer only.

Because the killer isn’t what maters. It’s the stories of those who were impacted by the actions of such evil.

And that is what makes this a good book. It takes a certain writer to be able to balance the human side of the story without overly emphasizing the horrendous acts alone.

I loved the way we get to read (or hear in my case with the audiobook) the facts around certain crimes (and I do say certain because there were many), and the hunt led by various law enforcement over the decades for a killer that continued to elude them. It painted a picture, but it was also respectful towards the victims and their loved ones. Names were replaced for surviving individuals and there was no particular attention paid towards the gore of the crimes.

The book didn’t go chronologically based on when crimes committed. This made it kind of confusing for me at first but I think I understand why Michelle McNamara (and the people who put this book together afterwards) may have gone this route. Cops didn’t know who was victim 0 or if certain crimes were truly connected at the time across jurisdictional boundaries. It’s not supposed to make sense like a story because this isn’t fiction. Once I tried seeing it this way, I have so much respect for Michelle and the police who spent so many countless hours working through the myriad of information in understanding even a little about this killer.

All of this is to say that I appreciate the breadth of work done here. This was an amazing legacy to leave behind for Michelle McNamara never got to see her work come out before she passed away suddenly. We see her heart in this and for the people impacted. It’s not only a story about the Golden State Killer (a name she coined) and his victims, but more about Michelle herself. And I think this is what made the story all the more compelling.

Whether people debate how much of her work truly influenced the eventual arrest of the Golden State Killer, I think we can see she never wanted (and now never will see) the spotlight but only asked for justice to rain down. And either way, her work helped motivate those wearied from such a cold case and incited fresh inspiration for those who wanted to help in any way they could. That cannot be negated.

So take a look at this book that is unlike many others out there. It doesn’t promise answers or even a resolution. It’s truly just a grab in the dark, hope against hope chronicle of Michelle’s journey to finding the Golden State Killer.

Overall Recommendation:

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is a testament and legacy of an incredible writer, Michelle McNamara, in her ruthless search for the truth behind so many numerous crimes in California in the 1970s and 80s. The writing is respectful towards the families impacted and doesn’t focus only on the killer. In fact, this book is more unveiling of Michelle’s own character and story as she dives into the work numerous law enforcement officers have tried to piece together throughout the decades. This is a wonderful insight into a cold case that didn’t have resolution nor answer until after its release and the unfortunate passing of the writer. But what a legacy she leaves behind, perhaps inspiring multitudes of others after her.

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