I'll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman's Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer
Her quarry was a white male, 5’ 9” to 5’ 11”, lean but with the athletic build of a swimmer, size 9–9½ shoes, dirty blond hair, Type A blood. He wore ski masks, he had a script and stuck to it, he used shoelaces or torn-up towels as ligatures, and he often brought baby lotion to the scene to use as a lubricant.
Blogger and journalist Michelle McNamara spent years of her life pursuing a shadowy individual who raped upwards of 50 women and murdered at least 10 people, the offender to whom she gave the inclusive moniker The Golden State Killer. His crimes were committed in various parts of California between 1976 to 1986, and he was connected to such unknown subjects as the East Area Rapist (EAR), the Original Night Stalker (ONS), and possibly also the Visalia Ransacker.
McNamara gathered a staggering amount of information. An insomniac, she spent countless nights on her laptop in her daughter’s playroom, prowling through what was described as a very wide “debris field” of evidence and clues that the subject left behind him as he casually sauntered from one assault to another.
She formed a network of contacts to share information and insight that included law enforcement investigators and fellow amateur sleuths. She interviewed detectives, witnesses, and many others who might possess a morsel of information that would move her quest forward.
When McNamara unexpectedly passed away in her sleep in 2016, she was in the process of writing I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, the book that would draw all this information together into a comprehensive survey of everything known about the offender referred to as EAR/ONS. The manuscript was finalized for publication by her lead researcher, Paul Haynes, and friend and fellow journalist Billy Jensen. They organized the material, added excerpts from her draft magazine articles, and contributed a chapter at the end of the book to summarize her work and their contributions to it.
What reaches out to us from the pages of I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, though, is not so much the tantalizing leads and technology-fueled breakthroughs that highlighted the pursuit of EAR/ONS, who remains unidentified to this day, but the character and personality of Michelle McNamara herself. Although she only dedicated a very short section of the book to a description of her own background, her distinctive, humorous, and very honest voice captures our attention and keeps us fascinated by the person that she was.
A brush with a homicide in her neighborhood when she was a teenager converted her into someone obsessed with unsolved murders. She became “a hoarder of ominous and puzzling details.” She confided, “When I meet people and hear where they’re from, I orient them in my mind by the nearest unsolved crime.”
She completed a Master of Fine Arts in fiction writing and wrote television pilots and screenplays. True crime eventually won out, however, and she started the online blog True Crime Diary, what she called her “DIY detective website.” She wrote the magazine article “In the Footsteps of a Killer” for Los Angeles Magazine.
What motivated her, though, as her husband Patton Oswalt, the well-known comic and actor, explains in an afterword, was “people. Specifically, detectives and investigators” who, like her, sifted through boxes and boxes of information in pursuit of justice for the victims of this offender’s crimes.
McNamara’s background in fiction demonstrated itself in a superb ability to tell a story in a nonfiction context. She had a well-developed knack for presenting a situation in a single, memorable image. These ranged from a recollection of her mother in her beige armchair in the living room of their home, circling her finger in the air to tell Michelle’s friends ringing the doorbell to go around to the unlocked back door, to her description of retired homicide investigator Larry Crompton as looking “like the kind of tall, lean, honest-faced rancher John Wayne would have trusted in one of his Westerns.”
Had she lived, who knows where her work might have led? Perhaps it would have resulted in her quarry being brought into the light of day, finally, after so many years. As it is, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark casts light on Michelle McNamara herself, a remarkable person and a talented writer who passed away too soon at the age of 46.
By all means, buy this book for the comprehensive information it presents on a serial sexual offender who managed to elude capture almost as an act of defiance as anything else. Read it, though, to hear and appreciate the voice of a writer who cared deeply, who was haunted by these heinous crimes, and who ultimately followed the truth into the darkness, where it remains to this day.