Traditionally, true crime follows a chronology that covers the history of a series of crimes. Sometimes it begins with a psychological portrait of the perpetrator. They always end with that perpetrator being captured by law enforcement and being found guilty before being locked up for a very long time. Michelle McNamara’s book, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, does none of these things. It moves back and forth in time from the 1960s to the 2010s. At the time it was written, there were suspects but the perpetrator was unknown. McNamara sadly died in 2016 before she could complete the book—which was finished by her research partner and a journalist. Two months after the book was published in spring 2018, a suspect was arrested and charged with the murders McNamara had been researching for years, committed by a man she dubbed the Golden State Killer.
Instead of following the usual trajectory of a work of true crime, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is the story of research and hunting for a killer. It bounces around in time as McNamara, investigators, and amateur sleuths make connections between a series of crimes. Together, they build a story of escalating crimes that includes prowling, burglary, rape, and murder from the early 1970s to 1986 when the crimes stop. The fact that there are so many connections to be made decades later is partly a result of various law enforcement departments not sharing information and partly because the perpetrator was so careful not to leave evidence that could identify him at the time. Late in I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, McNamara calls the DNA traces that the Golden State Killer left at the crime scenes as investigator’s ace in the hole. At the time, DNA couldn’t be sequenced and used to identify criminals. It was only in the mid-1990s that that technology was developed. The fact that there was DNA evidence that definitely came from the perpetrator meant that, if the killer ever was caught, police could irrefutably link him to the crimes.
In the memoir parts of the book, McNamara reflects on her obsession (and it is an obsession) with true crime and the Golden State Killer’s crimes. She talks honestly about losing sleep clicking around the internet trying to answer questions from her always growing, never shrinking list of questions and things to run down. She looks for cufflinks stolen from a crime scene on eBay. She buys copies of crime reports. She reads thousands of comments on internet fora dedicated to the Golden State Killer, talking with amateur sleuths about her theories and potential suspects. She also develops relationships with members of law enforcement on the criminologist side, as well as interviewing detectives who were assigned to some or all of the crimes linked to the Golden State Killer. It’s not hard to see why McNamara fell so deep down the rabbit hole; the case has trapped more than a few people over the past few decades. There’s so much information that it seems impossible that the case will never be solved. If McNamara can find the right piece of overlooked information or asks just the right question to the right person, maybe the perpetrator can be found.
I listened to I’ll Be Gone in the Dark as an audiobook. This might have been a mistake. The narrator, Gabra Zackman, has a voice that sounded gruffly human. She was not acting as the narrator of a work of fiction would have to. It’s the content of the book. I think I would have done better with the book if I’d read it. Also, I think I would have done better if I hadn’t been listening to the book at home, alone, often in the evenings as the sun when down. I caught myself looking up at the front door a lot to make sure that it was locked and, before I went to bed, I checked on the window locks more than once. This book has the potential to be utterly terrifying if you let it, especially since McNamara is so good about bringing the victims and survivors to life on the page. She never lets you forget that they were and are real people who went through hell.
There were times when I was making my way through I’ll Be Gone in the Dark when I got a little lost because of all the information coming at me and the jumps in time. Whenever I’d get frustrated, I’d remind myself that this wasn’t a book about a killer and his crimes so much as it was about the hunt. McNamara definitely captured the feeling of drowning in data that doesn’t yet make sense. I also appreciated that McNamara isn’t the kind of true crime writer who ends up glamorizing or excusing a serial killer by constantly profiling him. I’ll Be Gone in the Dark ends with a chapter called “Letter to an Old Man,” in which McNamara declares in ringing tones that the walls are closing in on the Golden State Killer and they he will, sooner rather than later, be caught and exposed. It is a terrible pity that McNamara didn’t live long enough to see him caught.