I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer by Michelle McNamara
Journalist and true crime blogger Michelle McNamara was an incredibly talented woman, not only is her writing compelling but her commitment to one story is virtually unparalleled. I’ll Be Gone in the Dark documents Michelle’s obsessive hunt for the Golden State Killer (a name she coined herself after it was discovered that two previously unconnected sets of attacks were carried out by the same man), a hunt that dominated her life since 2007.
The Golden State Killer was believed to have committed 12 killings, 50 rapes and over 100 burglaries across California from 1974 to 1986. Although plenty of evidence and even DNA was left at the crime scenes, no one was ever charged and the attacks eventually stopped.
You may know from recent news reports that the Golden State Killer, Joseph James DeAngelo was arrested on 24 April 2018 after a DNA breakthrough. Heartbreakingly, Michelle McNamara passed away at her home in April 2016 and although she never saw justice served, she always believed the Golden State Killer was out there.
Many believed that his reign of terror stopped due to his death or that the accuracy of an artist sketch caused him to go into hiding. Michelle disagreed with this, she believed he knew his time was running out, that technology was catching up with him.
Gillian Flynn’s introduction is a love letter to a woman and a writer that she obviously admired and respected. Gillian was a fan of Michell’s blog, True Crime Diary and admits to feeling ‘outmatched’ by her. Michelle had to deal with real people, detectives, victims and witnesses, while Gillian could control her characters and her stories. I’m not sure I’ve ever read a more endearing introduction and it clearly defines why true crime fans flocked to Michelle’s blog to read her work.
The body of the book is broken down into three parts. The first part begins by looking at some of the individual crimes. For those wanting gory details, you are in the wrong place. Due to nature of the crimes, the stories are horrifying but Michelle doesn’t wallow in violent details but instead focuses on the people; whether that’s the victims or the families left behind. One of the first stories details a man clearing up after his sister-in-law’s murder, it left a knot in my stomach for days.
The second section is made up of previously published articles or drafts of articles as well as completed research and details of Michelle’s meetings with law enforcement. Her reports on individual crimes become shorter and sharper, reflecting just how many victims there were and how the communities were holding their breath between attacks, knowing another was coming. Michelle taps into the tension and confusion on the streets of the communities the attacker was infiltrating. When the Golden State Killer started attaching couples in their homes (stacking plates on male victims and threatening he’d kill them both if he heard them move while he assaulted their partners) it showed his confidence and proved no one was safe.
Michelle’s own story is dotted within these first two sections. She explains that her addiction to investigating unsolved crimes stemmed from the local murder of teenager Kathleen Lombardo in their Illinois neighbourhood in 1984. She visited the crime scene and even picked up broken fragments from the girl’s walkman that she found on the ground. From there she was hooked.
The third section of this book is written collaboratively by Michelle’s lead researcher, Paul Haynes and investigative journalist Billy Jensen, after her death. They reveal the incredible volume of research that Michelle had done on this case, pulling together work she hadn’t managed to finalise, details on evidence and documenting leads that she had yet to work on. One of these was ‘Figure out way to submit DNA to 23andMe or Ancestry.com.’ This sentence sums up how close Michelle was to finding a serial killer. Newsweek reported: ‘Investigators in Sacramento County, California, used genealogy websites to capture the suspected Golden State Killer.’
Many people believe that Michelle’s unwavering commitment to hunting down The Golden State Killer is the reason that he’s been caught. I’ll Be Gone in the Dark and her earlier article, In the Footsteps of a Killer, brought the crimes back to the public’s attention. Her work with detectives, retired and current, kept the case alive. She never stopped hunting and when her leads went nowhere, she got knocked down but she always got back up and carried on researching.
Michelle’s husband, comedian Patton Oswalt writes the afterword. His love for her pours off the pages and if you make it through without being moved to tears then you have a heart of stone.
I’ll Be Gone in the Dark concludes with an epilogue titled ‘Letter to an Old Man’. This is Michelle McNamara’s open letter to the killer that she knew was still out there. Simply put, it is 6 pages of the some of the most evocative and powerful writing I’ve ever read, especially now he has been captured.
I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara is a reminder of how books can change the world. Would the Golden State Killer have ever been caught without her investigative journalism? It’s impossible to know for sure, but it’s undeniable that her fanatical work had a huge impact on the case. From acquiring potential evidence and discussing new leads with detectives to keeping the story in the public eye, her name will be synonymous with the capture of the Golden State Killer. I just wish she was here to see that her sleepless nights, her thousands of files and years of research weren’t in vain. This book will horrify you and leave your skin crawling; as Michelle said about herself ‘There’s a scream permanently lodged in my throat now.’ Her self-deprecating humour softens the harsh edges of this true story and her people focused writing makes for compulsive reading. It’s a dark and unsettling read but also evocative and important. This incredible book deserves every bit of attention it has and will receive.
If you enjoyed my review of I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara check out my list of the best true crime podcasts.