Sunday, December 9, 2018

I'll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman's Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer


Rating: 5 Stars

This is one of the best true crime books I have ever read, hands down.

I guess I seem a little late to the game, just posting my review now when I read the book back in March. But sometimes life just gets in the way. I think it is also hard sometimes to genuinely review something that is so hugely popular, widely read, and widely loved (for the most part). Until McNamara passed away suddenly in 2016, I had never heard of the rapist/murderer she had dubbed the Golden State Killer. Then came all the hubbub about her book, how her assistants would finish it, and it was finally released in February of this year. I put myself on the library waiting list and got the book in March.

It took mere hours to read.

This can be deceiving. The book is not a perfect masterpiece - how can it be, with the untimely death of the author who was such a skilled true-crime writer? Still, it is easy to see what the book could have been, had McNamara herself been able to finish it. That is why I feel like a five star rating is appropriate, because the passion with which McNamara poured into the project is there, seeping through with every word she wrote. This was her mission and though she could not complete it, she left a fantastic road map for it to be completed without her.

I know I should have written a review earlier. There really is not a whole lot I can say that has not already been said. I had every intention of sitting down to write this thing on the day the killer was captured, not long after I finished the book. But then I got sidetracked by new books and well, here we are.

It is easy to see how this case became an obsession for McNamara and I admire her for sticking to it, even when it would have been the easy thing to do. Still, she kept going, immersing herself in the case. She read everything she could get her hands on, scoured the internet late into the night, and even interviewed victims. McNamara firmly believed that the evidence was already there, the thing police needed to catch him was already in their possession, and all it would take is the latest DNA testing to find the serial rapist/murderer who had terrorized California for over a decade. In the end, she was right. Thanks to a genealogy website and watchful detectives, this monster was finally caught. Some question what's the point, he is in his seventies, is the projected $20 million worth it that the case is expected to cost?

Hell fucking yes it is.

This monster stalked the communities he struck in, entering peoples' homes when they were gone, determining the layout and best routes to escape, before finally deciding when to strike. He destroyed families and stole so much more than whatever trinkets he took from the scenes. I liken this to the Nazis still being rounded up today, who fled Germany so long ago and managed to live rather well in the ensuing decades. Every last one of those monsters deserves to be hunted down and held accountable for their crimes. I don't care how old they are. The same goes for this guy. I don't care that this might take ten years to prosecute. When all is said and done, justice must be served.

And that was McNamara's goal. She didn't care who got the credit, as long as they got the right guy. She worked tirelessly for years trying to put the pieces together. I don't know enough about the case prior to her book, so I am in no way claiming that she alone solved the crime (she couldn't have, as she passed before it was finished), but I would like to think that he relentless pursuit of that justice kept the case on the minds of those involved. It's such a shame she was not alive to see him finally captured, but her words to him in the epilogue are absolutely chilling. I got goosebumps the first time I read them, and again weeks later when he was finally arrested and this excerpt popped up in magazine and newspaper articles everywhere.

"One day soon, you'll hear a car pull up to your curb, an engine cut out. You'll hear footsteps coming u your front walk. Like they did for Edward Wayne Edwards, twenty-nine years after he killed Timothy Hack and Kelly Drew, in Sullivan, Wisconsin. Like they did for Kenneth Lee Hicks, thirty years after he killed Lori Billingsley, in Aloha, Oregon.

The doorbell rings.

No side gates are left open. You're long past leaping over a fence. Take one of your hyper, gulping breaths. Clench your teeth. Inch timidly toward the insistent bell.

This is how it ends for you.

"You'll be silent forever, and I'll be gone in the dark," you threatened a victim once.

Open the door. Show us your face.

Walk into the light."

McNamara wrote these words, certain that the killer was still alive, out somewhere, going about his life as though he was not one of the most active serial rapists/murderers ever known. She knew he would be caught, and she wrote beautifully of absolutely terrible things. Her words evoked deep feelings and I found myself very quickly falling down the same rabbit hole she did. I wanted to know everything there was to know and I found myself constantly Googling people and places as I read. I'm not sure what it was about this case in particular, but I had to know more. I'm not even much of a true crime reader, it all makes me so depressed and terrified at the same time. But this book, it hooked me.

I've noticed some are dismissive of McNamara's role in the case, and I won't even pretend to know or care about some of the politics behind it. I feel like she very thoroughly and succinctly put everything together so that even someone like myself, who had no knowledge of this case, could understand and follow. (To clear one thing up, I do remember hearing of the Original Night Stalker, but who knew he would end up being so many 'criminals' all wrapped up in one - the Original Night Stalker, the East Area Rapist, the Diamond Knot Killer, the Ransacker - as it was not until the early 2000s that it was determined one person was committing crimes attributed to multiple anonymous men - thanks to DNA testing.)

As said before, McNamara didn't care who caught the Golden State Killer, or who got credit for it, as long as he was caught. Time and again this is evident in her writing. Even though we follow her journey, learn about how and why she came to be a writer, it is never about her. it is always, always, about the victims. She treats them as gently as possible, and at no time did the book ever feel exploitative, as so many in the genre seem to be. One of the reasons I don't usually read much true crime is that that so many crimes seem so sensationalized, it's all about the blood and gore. Not here. McNamara creates such empathy within the reader because she keeps her own humanity while reporting on such horrific crimes. The victims are real to the reader, not just a name on a page. Through McNamara's writing we were able to become part of the story without getting in the way. The way she wrote created such a realistic scene, while still being respectful of the victims, that we could see this unknown person slinking around, hopping fences, leaving side gates open, melting into the shadows. So many times you want to shout, "There he is!" but who was he? Something else McNamara's superb writing does is show us so many perspectives. We view the case through many different eyes - the survivors and their families, the detectives working tirelessly, and then McNamara herself. Through it all though, the victims are those who matter most. Despite the technical aspect, the forensics and all of that, the victims are not lost and the story moves quickly, albeit not in a linear fashion and that might be something that bothers some readers but honestly, once you're in it, the jumping back and forth isn't really an issue because there's so much to learn.

I knew going into the book that the killer was still at large. Even with that knowledge, it did not make the end any easier. It was frustrating to come to the end and look at all this work, research, countless nights spent chasing down possible clues...then knowing also that McNamara would never see the conclusion. Throughout the book we are told which sections and chapters were pieced together by McNamara's research assistants from her notes, which pieces were from previously published material, and so on. Even then her voice still comes through, it is still her work after all - just not quite as polished as the rest. Then there is the end, where the last chapter ends literally in mid-sentence and we are left wondering where McNamara would have gone next.

Over all this book was fantastic, even at its weaker points where sections were put together using earlier drafts and notes. Highly recommended.


  1. I've seen this book on a couple of blogs this week. Being in the UK I'm not greatly familiar with the case but I used to read a lot of this kind of book, though not for a while. It does sound interesting.

    1. I really wasn't either, and I am only half way across the country from California! The amount of time she dedicated to this is staggering, especially when she talks about how it impacted her and her family - she talked about leaving a movie premier party because she received a new lead she wanted to follow up on. I think it is accurate to say this case haunted her.

  2. I love this review -- you've managed to articulate so much of what I wanted to say about this book. After reading it, I was just so drained and exhausted I needed to set aside for a bit -- and didn't post my review until now because of the Audible show about it. YOu should give that go -- you hear from Paul Holes, the detective who kept at the case and what he thought of Michelle's work. Anyone who dismisses her role and her work needs to listen to that, I think.

    1. Thank you so much Verushka! I had such a hard time really getting out what I wanted to say at first, I felt like I was all muddled. I am glad to hear that it makes sense to others besides me. Drained really is the right word for it I feel like, McNamara's really made her journey real and it felt like I was right there with her. I am definitely interested in hearing what Holes has to say, I definitely think McNamara's dedication to finding the killer helped keep this from becoming just another dead-end.


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