Friday, April 6, 2018

Book Review: "I'll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman's Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer" by Michelle McNamara

Since its publication earlier this year, some have asked whether Michelle McNamara's utterly engrossing true crime book, I'll Be Gone in the Dark, would be as popular if McNamara, the wife of comedian and actor Patton Oswalt, hadn't died suddenly while writing the book in 2016. While that tragedy certainly raised the book's profile, the fact is, this is a tremendously well-written and compelling book, worthy of every bit of acclaim it's gotten. It's just sad McNamara isn't around to appreciate the response to her years of hard work.

"Violent men unknown to me have occupied my mind all my adult life—long before 2007, when I first learned of the offender I would eventually dub the Golden State Killer. The part of the brain reserved for sports statistics or dessert recipes or Shakespeare quotes is, for me, a gallery of harrowing aftermaths: a boy's BMX bike, its wheels still spinning, abandoned in a ditch along a country road; a tuft of microscopic green fibers collected from the small of a dead girl's back. To say I'd like to stop dwelling is beside the point."

Unsolved crimes—particularly murders—were an obsession of McNamara's from when she was 14 years old. Growing up the youngest of six children in Oak Park, Illinois, in the mid-1980s, a young woman from her neighborhood was murdered one night while jogging. Even though some boys she knew might very well have seen the murderer shortly after he committed his crime, the murder was never solved, and from that act of senseless violence, a fascination which turned into an obsession and a career was borne.

"I was a hoarder of ominous and puzzling details. I developed a Pavlovian response to the word 'mystery.' My library record was a bibliography of the macabre and true. When I meet people and hear where they're from I orient them in my mind by the nearest unsolved crime."

McNamara created the true crime website, where she enjoyed rehashing unsolved cases with the police and others originally involved in them, as well as other armchair detectives. But nothing gripped her like the havoc wreaked by the man she dubbed the "Golden State Killer," a man who terrorized Northern California for more than 10 years in the 1970s and 1980s, committing 50 sexual assaults and 10 brutal murders, before disappearing without ever being caught.

In I'll Be Gone in the Dark, McNamara laid out the grisly, disturbing trail this killer and rapist left behind. Buoyed by painstaking research, she provides stories about his victims and those who got away lucky, the dogged police officers and detectives tasked with hunting down this criminal mastermind. It's fascinating but frustrating, in that without the technology used today in solving crimes, without the kind of knowledge about serial killers and serial criminals that exists today, this criminal was able to escape.

While that in and of itself makes for an interesting read, McNamara wasn't afraid to talk about herself as well, and how this obsession affected her life. Reading this book brought you closer to the mind of a fascinating woman, one who will never be able to tell her own story in greater detail, nor will she be able to see how people reacted to her book. She was a great writer, and her research and interpretation was top-notch. There was a reason that police detectives were willing to talk with her and rehash the crimes they couldn't solve—because they knew she got them.

In his blurb for the book, Stephen King said it best: "What readers need to know—what makes this book so special—is that it deals with two obsessions, one light and one dark. The Golden State Killer is the dark half; Michelle McNamara is the light half. It’s a journey into two minds, one sick and disordered, the other intelligent and determined. I loved this book." Yep.

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