Alive, even in Death: A Review of I’ll be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara

Michelle McNamara died in her sleep on April 21, 2016. The Golden State Killer was caught on April 24, 2018.

Somewhere in between, her labour of 5 years, a book that remained incomplete upon her death, was published. All thanks to her husband, Patton Oswalt, who sought out Billy Jensen, an investigative journalist and Paul Haynes, McNamara’s researcher for help in sorting through his wife’s notes, all 3500 files on her computer, to tell the story she desperately wanted to.

I’ll be Gone in the Dark, One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer infused a new-found interest into a decades old cold-case of EAR (East Area Rapist) – ONS (Original Night Stalker) – GSK (Golden State Killer), a man so vicious that one name doesn’t do justice to a lifetime of crimes. The last one – ‘’Golden State Killer’’ – was bestowed upon him by McNamara herself, whose vigorous attempts to catch him, was in part the reason why he finally was. Only she didn’t live long enough to witness it.

The book is a vivid, terrifying tale of a monster’s decade-long crime spree in Southern California. It is a gripping personal story of a woman’s obsession in bringing that monster out of the shadows. It is a comprehensive journal of the police’s (retired and active) investigative efforts in foraging through the forensic, statistical, genetic, even geographical clues that may or may not piece the puzzle together. And not in least, it is a grisly, haunting account of terrorised victims – ‘’broken marriages and drug-besotted lives.’’

The EAR – ONS – GSK began with petty burglaries, moved on to rapes, and escalated into murders after one of his victims fled his clutches. Active for ten years, between 1976 and 1986, his crimes were all well meticulously planned, professionally carried-out and distinctly cruel. He was ‘’a single mind at work, someone who didn’t leave many clues or talk or show his face, someone who strolled undetected in the middle-class swarm, an ordinary man with a resting-pulse derangement.”

He was a patient recorder of habits and routines; a mystery to his victims, while they were an open book to him. He was, to his victims, only a ski-mask, a knife at their necks, a small penis lathered in baby lotion. To the police, he was shoe impressions, a small, useless DNA sample, a rough sketch.

Pre-planning was his most crucial advantage; he parked outside the police perimeter, he left opened the side gates for an easier escape, he knew every aspect of his victim’s life. Another advantage was that he was unfamiliar in his methods. Once, he escaped an FBI agent on car while he himself was on foot.

He was lucky, but it was only a matter of time, the author was convinced.

The title of the book comes from one of the killer’s most bone-chilling threats, recounted by a woman in a police report: “Make one move and you’ll be silent forever and I’ll be gone in the dark.”

Michelle McNamara, part-time writer and part-time sleuth, is driven to despair with the dead ends and unanswered questions. To the point where she forgets her anniversaries, turns her daughter’s room into an evidence storage and describes herself as having a ‘’scream permanently lodged in her throat.’’  

She does not detach herself or her personal life from the book as the investigation progresses. Her interest into investigation starts early when she finds a girl’s dead body near her house when she was only a little girl. She breaks down each element from the tragic and traumatic plight of the victims.

She writes with such utter honesty and ardent empathy that this book becomes more than its genre. I, personally, have never tread the True Crime genre, but this story really, really got to me. I am terrified by the subject, yet so awed by the writing that I cannot stop reading on. This is a special kind of book, deserving of all the fame it has been claiming since its release.

At the end of the book, she leaves him a letter labelled ‘Letter to an Old Man’, where she addresses him directly and with a clear conviction says to him, ‘This is how it ends for you’ before describing how it does.

She knows how they’ll catch him, or has an idea thereof. With a threat in her voice, she says ‘’The truth is memories fade. Paper decays. But technology improves. You cut out when you looked over your shoulder and saw your opponents gaining on you. The race was yours to win.’’ She tells him his ski mask won’t help him in this new world that hums with technology – Google, Smartphones, Familial DNA. She pokes fun at him by stating that he is beyond leaping over fences, now in his twilight years.

She imagines a police car stopping at his door, his doorbell ringing.

Then she brings the story to a stop with ‘’Open the door. Show us your face.
Walk into the light.’’

And he does! On April 24, 2018, he walked out into the light, in a scene similar to what she imagined it to be.

Her book was credited by the Sacramento County Sheriff for keeping alive the interest in this case as well as for helping bring in tips . But she didn’t want credit or fame, she wanted him behind bars. She wanted peace of mind. Well, she has it now, if not in life, then in death.

RIP, Michelle McNamara! You got him.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Excellent review Trish! It’s so bittersweet that her work contributed to his capture but she isn’t here to celebrate.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I know! But what an amazing thing she did … she would have been over the moon had she been alive!

      Liked by 1 person

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