The incredible backstory of I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer is well-known: Michelle McNamara spent years researching and tracking down a serial rapist and murderer, but died suddenly (from a combination of prescription drugs and an undiagnosed heart condition) without ever having found him. Later, using her notes and research materials, her lead researcher, Paul Haynes, and an investigative journalist friend, Billy Jensen, finished the manuscript for her.
The book is about her search for the criminal, still as yet unknown, that McNamara dubs the Golden State Killer, a man responsible for 50 rapes and at least 10 murders in Central and Southern California in the 1970s and 80s. He was known previously by different monikers in different jurisdictions: the East Area Rapist, the Visalia Ransacker, the Original Night Stalker.
The book itself, with a forward by the amazing thriller author Gillian Flynn, jumps right into it, describing the crime scene of Manuela Witthuhn’s rape and murder from the point of view of her brother-in-law, Drew. But this is no tedious catalog of gore. McNamara only features the cases that provide some vital clue or context to the case, always paying attention to the details – the crime scene details, of course, but also the human details: the responses of the friends and family who found the bodies, the thoughts of the investigators. Each scene is so rich in detail, it reads like a novel.
She also gives us glimpses into her own thoughts and motivations, like how she became obsessed with true crime at age 14, after learning of an unsolved murder where the young woman’s body was dumped mere blocks from her home.
The overall structure of the book is non-chronological, jumping back and forth in time from the crime scenes to the investigations to the present day. But it works, mostly, to build the narrative. Which brings me to my only (very mild) criticism: some of the chapters that are adapted or excerpts from previously published articles repeated some things, so it seemed like you were going over ground already covered.
The biggest thing about this book is, unlike most true-crime books, the killer is never identified. She does look into a trio of likely suspects, but all are excluded by the evidence. Profiles are built, but with no workable pool of suspects, they are as insubstantial as tissue paper. There is DNA evidence, but no suspect to match it to.
And with his last murder committed in 1986, this case may indeed stay cold. Cold cases involving serial killers are rarely solved after so many years. The longest a serial killer has gotten away with his crimes was 48 years: in 2016, Edwin Dean Richardson was identified through DNA as the murderer of Wendy Jo Halison in 1968. By then, Richardson was four years in his grave. But in the Golden State Killer case, all relevant police departments have had his DNA for years, and it has been run through CODIS multiple times without a hit. Until he messes up and gets arrested, it won’t do them any good.
Odds are, by now the Golden State Killer is dead. Brutal sexual attackers don’t stop until they are stopped. But even that theory isn’t iron-clad. The suspect called one of his victims in 2001, asking, “Remember when we played?” This suggests that he may indeed have enough self-control to quit for 30 years.
There a numerous theories floating around about the Golden State Killer. In addition to law enforcement, regular citizens discuss and research his crimes and try to find that crucial lead. This just shows the strength of this book: it takes a decades-old, little-known cold case and brings it to life. Hopefully it will bring it to justice as well.