I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara

Michelle McNamara didn’t live to complete her excellent account of hunting the Golden State Killer, whom she didn’t live to see arrested.

So, what to make of this book? Incomplete at the time of the author’s death. About an unsolved crime.

Let’s start with did I like it? Yes, I did. I liked the portions the author completed before her death the most, possibly only those parts. The book is carefully labelled by the editors to let the reader know which portions (chapters) the author completed, which ones they have completed for her, which ones are taken from other published articles and which ones are basically Ms. McNamara’s notes. It makes for a kind of written collage, almost a Dada true crime book.

The reader can follow the case of the Golden State Killer and what it was like to investigate this decades long series of murders in spite of the books collage/Dada feel. There is much to learn from doing so. I was struck to discover that the police investigators valued the help of amateur sleuths. I’d long believed that those on the internet trying to solve crimes through late night web searches were not of any use for the police working a case. Turns out, this is wrong. Many of them play important roles in solving crimes, some like Ms. McNamara play key roles. She has been credited as key to catching the Golden State Killer.

Serial killers are not clever people. The Golden State Killer remained free for so long not because he was particularly smart, he wasn’t, he simply managed to stay out of the DNA database much longer than he probably could have today. I’ve long suspected that genius serial killers, like Dexter, etc. are unicorns. They are myths that do not exist or exist in numbers too small to consider. It was nice to have that confirmed in I’ll Be Gone in the Dark.

The trail of lives ruined by people like the Golden State Killer is long: Victims, family members, spouses, children, detectives and their spouses and children. Ms. McNamara tells their story without exploiting them and with as few personal details as she can. While I appreciated this, not knowing the names or significant backstories of those involved gave the book a distance that some readers will find difficult. This is not In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote who created many characters from the lives of those interviewed for his book.

This is not to say that I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is not compelling story-telling. I found the portions completed by Ms. McNamara to be excellent reading. She brings a humanity to those she writes about along with a clean writing style that propels the story forward as much as can be done with an unsolved mystery.

But overall, there was a strange sense of disconnect throughout the book, for me at least. Disjointed. The reader has to do more work putting things together than Ms. McNamara probably would have wanted. Because there are so many cooks involved in creating this soup, there is no one narrative voice to hold the reader’s hand. Expect to do your share of the work putting everything together.

Maybe that’s as it should be. The story of hunting the Golden State Killer as Ms. McNamara lived it, was one ultimately one of frustration. The portion of the book she completed ends with detectives still searching and the killer still at large.

It’s not until after the book was published that the story it told came to a conclusion.