At 15 weeks, Michelle McNamara’s I’ll be Gone in the Dark qualifies for the Ten Weeks on the New York Times Bestseller List challenge (2018 Reading Challenge).
McNamara pursues the Golden State Killer (GSK), one of the most prolific yet ignored serial rapist-turned-killer in recent memory. Devouring decades worth of police notes, newspaper articles and witness testimony she follows every lead she finds to its disappointing end. According to notes by the author herself, she didn’t expect to find the killer by the end of the book. She hoped the story would inspire others to join the search.
Unlike many true crime books, McNamara doesn’t revel in the gory details of the crimes. She doesn’t inadvertently glorify the nameless murderer by building him up to be the essence of looming terror a la Charles Manson. It’s about the labyrinthine process of searching for one nondescript man whose crimes span over twelve years, 500 miles and 70+ victims. It’s about the humanity of the victims– the ones who survived, the ones he killed, and those left grieving. And it’s about the ones who search for him, those on the force and those “armchair” detectives who devote just as much time as the professionals.
Or at least that’s the spirit of the book.
Michelle McNamara died on April 21, 2016, midway through writing I’ll Be Gone in the Dark. In some places editors culled from her earlier essays about GSK. Lead researcher Paul Haynes and investigative journalist Billy Jenson “worked together to tie up loose ends.” But I don’t know if the finished product is the book she envisioned.
Perhaps it’s a trope of true crime novels to skip around. I’ve read several books that never finish a thought before jumping to a new topic, a new case, a new location. This book follows that formula. It begins by recounting a later GSK crime and continues out of chronological order. The author, or editor most likely, then inserts memoir-like passages that McNamara wrote about her current day search. In these parts we get to know McNamara and the detectives working the case. We get to see their obsessive perseverance despite crushing disappointment. We also hear from surviving victims and family members. This is where the humanity of the book resides, reminding us that what piques our interest as readers is a vexing nightmare for those who lived it.
I don’t recall a book having such a bittersweet backstory as this. Here is a debut novel by a talented, professional voice that promises great things. But that voice is now silenced. She never got to see this killer “walk into the light”, but he was eventually caught two months after I’ll Be Gone In The Dark was released, forever binding her hard work to as happy an ending as this story can have.