I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer by Michelle McNamara
For more than ten years, a mysterious and violent predator committed fifty sexual assaults in Northern California before moving south, where he perpetrated ten sadistic murders. Then he disappeared, eluding capture by multiple police forces and some of the best detectives in the area.
Three decades later, Michelle McNamara, a true crime journalist who created the popular website TrueCrimeDiary.com, was determined to find the violent psychopath she called “the Golden State Killer.” Michelle pored over police reports, interviewed victims, and embedded herself in the online communities that were as obsessed with the case as she was.
I’ll Be Gone in the Dark—the masterpiece McNamara was writing at the time of her sudden death—offers an atmospheric snapshot of a moment in American history and a chilling account of a criminal mastermind and the wreckage he left behind. It is also a portrait of a woman’s obsession and her unflagging pursuit of the truth. Utterly original and compelling, it has been hailed as a modern true crime classic—one which fulfilled Michelle’s dream: helping unmask the Golden State Killer.
“He loses his power when we know his face.”
Normally, I steer clear of true crime. It’s one thing to love a good mystery, and it’s another to look so deeply into the tragedy of unsolved crimes. Often, I feel like the genre exploits those stories, and tells them with too much focus on the party responsible, or without enough privacy for the victims. Really, it’s difficult to strike the right balance in true crime, one that respects the victims and their situations, and one that also does not minimize the atrocities at hand (without, at the same time, steering into territory too graphic or invasive).
Thankfully, I feel like Michelle McNamara did an outstanding job toeing that line. In part, I suspect this is because she did not have the Golden State Killer’s identity (he was arrested in 2018, and she died in 2016 with portions of this book incomplete; her husband and two of her fellow investigators completed the rest). Without knowing his name or his face, she focused on the stories of those he harmed. Despite the horrific acts the GSK committed, McNamara treated the victims with dignity and respect. More than that, she also gave the victims’ friends and family that same grace. Ultimately, this means I found I’ll Be Gone in the Dark both chilling and informative without feeling invasive.
That said, it did bother me how McNamara sometimes highlights the cops. While she refers mostly to individuals in a positive light (and regularly mentions the pettiness and disorganization between different jurisdictions), I still didn’t appreciate that, especially in light of recent events and the growing need to defund and abolish the police. However, she does not credit the police with all the legwork. A great deal of respect is given to the families, and to the ordinary people making efforts to finally catch the GSK and set his reign of terror to rest.
In the end, knowing that the GSK is behind bars, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is a much more satisfying read. Maybe it didn’t contribute directly to the arrest in 2018, but it kept the cases alive and in the spotlight long enough to pressure continued efforts to see justice, and that feels like it ought to count for something.
CW: loss of a loved one, rape, sexual harrassment, graphic injury, pedophilia, violence (including gun violence), quoted use of the n-word, animal abuse, animal death, necrophilia, self-harm, suicide, drug use, domestic abuse, child abuse