2018 saw the publication of Michelle McNamara‘s posthumous work I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: A Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer(*). The US screenwriter and true crime expert were working on a new take on what she called the Golden State Killer when she suddenly passed away at the age of 46 in her sleep in April 2016. Michelle’s passion project remained in the safe hands of her her husband, comedian Patton Oswald who trusted editors Paul Heynes and Billy Jensen with her extensive body of work. The book was published in February 2018. The 25th April 2018 the Sacramento Police announced the arrest of Joseph James DeAngelo, a seventy-two-year-old whose DNA matched the one found in several Golden State Killer crime scenes (**).
The first thing I realised when I started I’ll be Gone in the Dark was that it was indeed a passion project. Michelle McNamara had written and polished the first chapters of the book so that they reflect her first contact with the criminal that she would label the Golden State Killer as well as why she was so drawn to his crimes. This first part highlights the beauty of the investigating process and the key role that the human factor plays in every investigation, and it is this love and respect for those who are left behind – be it the detectives, the crime scene investigators or even the beloved ones and neighbours whose accounts of the victims’ lives can be crucial – that shapes I’ll Be Gone in the Dark.
This is a true-crime book written by a writer, someone for whom research, interviews, and long hours at libraries and archives is part of her daily life. McNamara is perfectly aware of the history of criminal investigations, and she makes it a point of her own research to highlight how when the Golden State Killer first started terrorising California “were the days before criminal profiling, before terms like “signature” or “ritual behavior” became commonplace”. She shows respect for all the detectives involved in the crimes, but she is also critical of their work and their roles especially since the modus operandi of the Golden State Killer signalled he had some kind of military background (not surprisingly now that we know Joseph DeAngelo was a police officer during some of his early attacks [sidenote: DeAngelo was never in McNamara’s radar]).
Even though true crime books can sometimes feel voyeuristic in their fixation with the criminal, McNamara’s work prefers to focus on the consequences of these crimes for the people of Sacramento and SoCal, with these attacks affecting their daily basis on a profound basis:
“Nearly three thousand guns were sold in Sacramento County between January and May. Many people refused to sleep between one and four a.m. Some couples slept in shifts, one of them always stationed on the living room couch, a rifle pointed at the window”.
Not only that but having been given the privilege of interviewing some of the victims and reading their testimonies, Michelle focus on the aftermath of the attack and the stigma that sadly still nowadays comes with being the victim of a sexual assault. She is compassionate and kind, and though the victims’ experience is sometimes portrayed in detail, she gives them space so that their voices can be finally heard. She also produces a complex analysis of how the attacks affected both the men and the women involved in the cases, either as victims or as detectives, differently because of stricter gender roles. Acknowledging these historical and cultural values enriches her work by going beyond the mere facts and once more highlights Michelle’s value as a storyteller.
Another group of people that Michelle thought deserved to be heard is the online true-crime community, where a group of amateur sleuths with a diverse range of skills altruistically focused on revising the documents about East Area Rapist/Golden State Killer. Michelle herself was part of this community as the founder of True Crime Diary, where she wrote about her own adventures as a sleuth. She is critical of how this community is seeing by professional investigators and she highlights the hard and ground-breaking work these people do:
“The Web Detectives, drawn to a decades-old case for their own private, idiosyncratic reasons, were the ones hunting the killer with their laptops, but the investigators were subtly steering them […] Not everyone admires the board sleuths or their efforts. One agitator came on recently to rant about what he characterized as wannabe cops with a twisted, pathetic obsession. He accused them of being untrained meddlers with an unhealthy interest in rape and murder”.
It is difficult now to revisit these lines after seeing the Golden State Killer arrested just two months after Michelle’s book was published, despite having been hunted for more than forty years by several police departments. We will never know whether it is a coincidence, a conspiracy or simply the product of several decades of hard work. It is true that Michelle insists on several occasions on how submitting the rapist’s DNA to a private DNA database such as MyAncestry could provide the case with a final ground-breaking clue. And indeed it did. Several sources point out that it was exactly this strategy which eventually led to the arrest of Joseph James DeAngelo.
Michelle McNamara’s I’ll Be Gone in the Dark has attracted a lot of attention this past week as people debated the book’s role in the arrest of the Golden State Killer. The police did not acknowledge Michelle’s work, nor does it seem they will ever do. McNamara was an “armchair sleuth” – can we change the term to “laptop sleuth”? – and her involvement in the case was never official, though several official sources, from detectives to victims, trusted her with their work and their point of view. Ultimately it was their contributions what gave McNamara’s work the power to challenge official investigations, usually conducted from a merely scientific and institutional point of view. If anything, her book helped to bring mass attention to a serial rapist and killer.
If you still haven’t read I’ll be Gone in the Dark, there is no other time like the present though it seems even Amazon.com has run out of copies. Incorporating what we know about DeAngelo to your reading will certainly enrich the experience, and if you live in California, you can now rest assured the subject of your nightmares is finally behind bars. For crime readers, this book is a token of love, hard-work and passion and it will certainly bring tears to your eyes knowing that Michelle did not live to see the Golden State Killer walk into the light.
(*) I had been waiting a long time to review this book, pushing it just another week because I wanted my review to make justice to the hard-work behind Michelle McNamara’s work. Last week I realised that there will no better justice to her work than real-life events, and it was time already to write this.
(**) The Golden State Killer, also known as the Early Bird Rapist or the East Area Rapist is one of the US most prolific rapists, killers and burglars. He struck in California between 1975 and 1986 and he is responsible (that we know of) for at least 12 killings, 50 rapes, and 120 burglaries. His modus operandi has become part of American criminal history as he surprised young couples at night, flashed a light to their faces, and forced the woman to tye up the man. He then placed a china plate and cup on the man (a well-known military technique used in Vietnam) and threatened the man to kill him if the china fell. He would then rape the woman in another room and steal some of the couples’ personal belongings as treasures. His behaviour escalated and he eventually started killing. This modus operandi has been widely portrayed in US crime shows, such as in the pilot for the successful Rizzoli & Isles (2010-2016).