As I sit here, I feel a great trepidation, not because of what I’ve just read, but how I go about expressing it. No matter what I say below, I’ll never be able to give this book the highest praise it deserves.
You see, I’m not a true-crime buff. I don’t know the first thing about Ed Gein or Ted Bundy; the only other book similar to this I’ve read is People Who Eat Darkness.
The Woman Behind the Search
Michelle McNamara is the wife of American comedian Patton Oswalt. She first embarked on her true-crime journalism by starting the blog true crime diary in 2006. But why did she choose to pursue the case of what she dubbed the search for the Golden State Killer?
As McNamara relates in her article in Los Angeles Magazine, ‘One of the uncomfortable truths about tracking and catching serial killers is, marketing matters. Ever since Jack the Ripper terrorized the slums of 19th-century London, serial killers who thrive on public reaction seem to instinctively know this and sometimes devise their own monikers.‘
This moniker is one of the reasons why the case was brought to the public’s perception; suddenly, he could be identified by a name rather than a pseudonym; the golden state killer.
The first few chapters give a brief overview of the serial rapist turned serial killer, who brutalised at least fifty victims over ten years in Sacramento (1979 – 89). These crimes include thirteen murders, fifty women raped and around one hundred and twenty burglaries.
Yet his case files were put away as unsolved, and he was rarely mentioned in the same breath as other serial killers across America. It was this mysterious charm that drew McNamara to the crimes in the first place. How can such a prolific criminal go so unnoticed in the history books?
An Obsessive Pursuit
The full title is I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer. Obsessive being the keyword here.
As the search began to snowball, McNamara recruited other wanna-be investigators and crime journalists using her blog as a platform for others to raise opinions and case theories.
Towards the end of the book, she questions her own efforts in catching a killer, comparing them to the killer himself stalking his victims. By trying to piece together thousands of small pieces of evidence, the answer will reveal itself. However, getting these pieces is where the adrenaline is; thinking you’ve solved the case only to find out the detectives have already exhausted that avenue. Then it’s back to the beginning to start over again.
McNamara notes on the EAR (East Area Rapist as he was first known) that his anonymity, by shining a flashlight into a victims face gives him the upper hand. Revealing a knife, and later a gun, he coerces the victims into being restrained.
This anonymous presence in the Sacramento area grew as his crimes multiplied, not just in rate, but in stature.
McNamara also notes on the killer, ‘He loses his power when we know his face.‘ And that’s the big draw of this book. You want to read on to the end so you too can piece the puzzle together and feel glorified in your knowledge.
During this book’s writing, Michelle McNamara died of an accidental overdose on April 21, 2016, aged forty-six. She was interred at Forest Lawn Memorial Park, Los Angeles.
Although not mentioned here, HBO’s documentary revealed that McNamara was sexually assaulted during a brief period in Belfast, after meeting a man in 1992. It’s thought that this was one of her driving points, allowing her to emotionally connect with the victims.
For a shorthand version of events, and an interview with one of the detectives at the time Larry Compton, Michelle’s Podcast covers all the basics. It’s worth noting that Compton himself wrote a book about the Golden State Killer, titled Sudden Terror.
From McNamara’s own descriptions of the book, it’s a little cack-handed and even falls into the category of victim shaming in some instances, but has plenty of useful information regarding stone-cold facts.
So, let’s take a look at some of these facts:
It was initially believed that three attackers were in northern California during the period in question; East Area Rapist (EAR), Original Night Stalker, and Visalia Ransacker. Through DNA investigating in 2001, it was found that all three were the same man.
It’s hard to say if his confidence grew or he just needed a higher stimulation each time. However, it’s clear from the timeline below that his crimes became more and more brazen.
Visalia Ransacker (1973–1976)
This was the period in which he would ransack homes, often stealing personal items such as jewellery and photographs, neglecting higher-value goods and money. On September 11, 1975, he attempted to abduct a young girl from her family home. The girl’s father interrupted the kidnapping and was shot twice, killing him in the process.
After heightened suspicion in the neighbourhoods, on December 12, 1975, Detective William McGowen was staking out a house after discovering suspicious tracks. A ski-masked intruder jumped a backyard fence, but feigned surrender when the detective fired a warning shot.
Upon turning, he shot at the detective, smashing his flashlight. No one was harmed, but the suspect was able to escape.
East Area Rapist (1976–1979)
At this point, the suspect moved to the Sacramento area and began raping young women in their homes. It also began escalating to attacking couples who were sleeping at night.
He would always approach with his flashlight in the middle of the night and claim he only wanted money and food, a false pretence to coercing the women into tying up their partners before he tied them up. He’d often place dishes on the male’s backs (an old army trick) claiming that if he heard it drop he would kill everyone in the house – children included.
At this point, he’d take the women into the living room and rape them multiple times. He would also spend hours ransacking the homes, eating food and drinking beer (which he repeatedly left in the backyard). He’d then go on to make additional threats of violence. An interesting trait is he would have his victims blindfolded, meaning he could step away from them for some time. As soon as they dropped their guard thinking he’d gone, he would ‘jump from the darkness‘ and begin terrorising again.
This period equated to fifty rapes, and two murders, including that of a young couple who got into an altercation on the street. He chased them down and shot them.
Original Night Stalker (1979–1986)
From here, the suspect moved towards Southern California and began killing his victims, frequently couples – amounted to thirteen murders in total.
This information is only the tip of the iceberg and really doesn’t do justice to the books incredible gravitas. Each new case feels like a step forward before a large U-turn is forced through broken links in evidence.
An Emotional Ride
When I say McNamara keeps her emotions out of the book, this is true to a degree. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t heart-wrenching moments too. One of the most significant points that stuck in my mind was how some men were expected to act after the attacks.
Back in the 70s, they were seen as protectors of the family; yet having a stranger enter the home and rape their partners completely negates all of that. This toxic masculinity and bottling up their feelings are why most couples divorced not long after.
Nevertheless, after being attacked as a couple with his wife Fiona, Philip Williams (*pseudonym) heads over to another victims house and introduces himself. He realises that the only other person who could possibly understand his pain was another male victim. Sometimes they would even drive around together looking for suspicious figures lurking in the bushes or peering through windows.
As McNamara puts it ‘The two men’s bond was unspoken. Few men would have experience what they had… They hunted a man whose face they didn’t know. Didn’t matter. The action of moving forward, their hands unrestrained, of physically doing something, was all that did.‘
There’s an excellent introduction by Gillian Flynn, who states how great this book is, not just in its pushing for the truth, but through its use of narrative. Flynn herself uses a similar detective group forum in her book Dark Places, in which would-be detectives and crime enthusiasts get together to try and solve mysterious crimes.
McNamara never overloads or dumps heaps of information on you, but just enough to keep you going. From here, she then turns a corner just as you feel the story waning, to hook you back in.
Whether you’re into true-crime or not, this book is an absolute must-read!
The writing is delicately balanced between crime journalism and story-telling and contains little in the way of personal infliction. Other than the brief chapters about her upbringing, the book focuses solely on one of America’s biggest serial killers, and the hunt to find him.
After The Book – Further Reading
The use of geniality services to solve a case – Is it ethical? – Los Angeles Times