Our Review

“I THINK YOU BAILED when the world began to change,” writes journalist Michelle McNamara in an imagined letter to the Golden State Killer in the epilogue of her true crime memoir, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark. She is offering a hypothesis to explain why the psychopath who had terrorized California communities throughout the state from 1974 to 1986 — committing at least 46 rapes and 12 murders — abruptly stopped. “Memories fade. Paper decays,” she writes after cataloging the many ways past policing limitations had hampered the hunt for one of the most prolific serial rapists and killers in modern history. “But technology improves.”

Technology does indeed improve. As McNamara and others had guessed, the key to the killer’s ultimate capture lay in familial DNA databases. In uncanny timing, on April 25 — just two months after I’ll Be Gone in the Dark’s release and subsequent rocketing to the top of the New York Times best-seller list — authorities hauled in the suspect that had eluded them for over 30 years. Thanks to a complex process involving an open-source DNA database and time-consuming genealogical analysis, investigators were eventually able to zero in on Joseph James DeAngelo Jr., a 72-year-old former police officer who had lived in the same Sacramento suburb for over 30 years. While a jury has yet to determine his guilt, the odds are astronomically against him. Not only did analysis of his publicly discarded DNA result in a 100 percent match — a one in 400 trillion chance — but the details of his life also appear to square exactly with the locations of the crimes and other reported specifics. A judge has recently also allowed the prosecution to order fingerprints and additional DNA, not to mention anatomical photographs to determine whether he possesses the “physical abnormality” described by his surviving victims: an exceptionally small penis.

It’s hard to imagine a capture more emblematic of this particular cultural moment of reckoning: an aging dinosaur of a predator is finally brought down by the advances of a new age — humiliated in the process, whether by way of potted plant or micro-penis. For Harvey Weinstein et al, the scale of atrocity and the modus operandi were obviously more modest, but it’s still easy to discern similarities in the rough outline of misogyny and sexual predation. And, it’s easy, too, to see a ready hero in hard-charging armchair detective Michelle McNamara, who — it is only the slightest stretch to say — died in pursuit of the monster responsible for such a wide swath of devastation.

While officials in Sacramento were quick to assert that I’ll Be Gone in the Dark did not contribute to the capture of Joseph DeAngelo, McNamara’s work certainly raised the public profile of the long-cold case — and thus very probably also heightened the pressure to solve it. A true crime junkie back before “binge-watching” and “podcasts” were words let alone catalysts for full-blown true crime addiction, McNamara brought her hobby armchair-sleuthing out of the shadows in 2006 with the launch of her blog True Crime Diary, a place for fellow amateur detectives to swap leads and crowdsource clues to help solve cold cases. However, nothing consumed her attention more than the case of the at-large brutal serial rapist and murderer then known by the cumbersome moniker East Area Rapist/Original Night Stalker, or “EAR/ONS.” Surprised that a predator more prolific than the Zodiac Killer was not well known outside of law enforcement circles, McNamara rebranded him with the much more media-friendly “Golden State Killer” nickname — a step she had mixed feelings about, considering it aggrandized him. However, the angle worked. Potential leads poured in as the crimes and victims received much more press over the next years — including a 2013 piece in Los Angeles Magazine written by McNamara herself that would become the basis for I’ll Be Gone in the Dark.

In a tragic twist, Michelle McNamara’s unexpected death in her sleep in April 2016 garnered even more attention for the case. Not only did McNamara’s husband, comedian Patton Oswalt, share her investigative efforts with his millions of Twitter followers and fans, but more importantly, he recruited researcher Paul Haynes and investigative journalist Billy Jensen to complete her partially finished manuscript by piecing together her copious handwritten notes, tentative hypotheses, interview transcripts, and roughly 3,500 separate computer files.

The resulting book secures McNamara’s legacy as a virtuoso crime writer while also bucking the conventions of the genre. The account’s necessarily fragmented nature may be jarring, but its juxtaposition of case facts with personal notes and reflection is also one of its greatest strengths. Had Michelle McNamara merely completed a comprehensive look at the Golden State Killer’s crimes in order to generate more investigative leads, the book would have been rendered obsolete the instant that DeAngelo was arrested. Instead, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is a timeless, personal memoir about a woman’s obsessive hunt for justice as well as a moving, fully realized portrait of the killer’s victims, their families, and the army of heroic detectives who tirelessly pursued a predator for many decades.

Michelle McNamara steers clear of the lurid sensationalism that can prevail in the true crime genre. Other crime narratives can sometimes elevate killers, lending them an almost mythic status. McNamara’s depth of empathy for the Golden State Killer’s victims puts them at the center of the story instead. Moreover, the intimacy of her narrative voice combined with her well-chosen details never allow us a safe, voyeuristic vantage point from which to observe the horrors she describes. She weaves in a casual mention of a victim’s copy of Your Perfect Right: A Guide to Assertive Behavior on his nightstand. A daughter’s personal calendar empty for the month except for reminders of her dead parents’ birthday. A surviving boyfriend who recalls his girlfriend dismissing a sound from the garage as a washing machine. Michelle McNamara never lets us forget the scope of the killer’s sadism and the lives he destroyed. It’s a terrifying world to be thrust into — but it’s also an oddly refreshing counterpoint to the murder-as-light entertainment vibe of current podcasts and streaming docuseries.