Attempting to Solve the Unsolvable: A Writer Delves into a California Mystery

Book review: I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, by Michelle McNamara

Your fantasies ran deep, but they never tripped you up. Every investigation into an at-large violent offender is a footrace; you always maintained the lead…You knew to park just outside the standard police perimeter, between two houses or on a vacant lot, to avoid suspicion. You punched small holes in the glass panes, used a tool to nudge wooden latches, and opened windows while your victims remained asleep. You turned off the AC so you could hear if someone was coming. You left side gates open and rearranged patio furniture so you had a straight shot out. Pedaling a ten-speed, you escaped an FBI agent in a car. You scuttled across roofs…

A neighbor witnessed you escape the scene of one attack. You exited the house the way you entered: without pants.

Helicopters. Roadblocks. Citizen patrols taking down plate numbers. Hypnotists. Psychics. Hundreds of white males chewing on gauze. Nothing.

You were a scent and shoe impressions. Bloodhounds and detectives tracked both. They led away. They led nowhere.

They led into the dark.

What is it about unsolved mysteries that pulls us in and keeps us captivated for years, sometimes a lifetime? Often, it seems to be a case that’s gone unsolved that made someone into a true crime follower. It just seems that ears inadvertently perk up at those perplexing stories – a murder with gruesome circumstances and a host of clues (or maybe not) and ultimately, no one apprehended. Someone disappears out into the world, still moving amongst us, and we never get the answer that our minds seem to need in order to be able to move on from a story.

Just as the most satisfying books tend to be those with resolution, a crime story needs its culprit and some reasoning or explanation behind its acts. For those lacking that conclusion, there’s something chillingly strong about the pull.

I think among true crime readers/watchers, everybody has that one case that you’d give anything to know the answer to. JonBenet comes up often, or the Zodiac. For me it’s one that played out close to home, full of odd, inexplicable circumstances, unspooled to possibly include decades of murders, some unidentified, made nightmarish headlines, and had enough details withheld to make me think there’s much more to the case than we know – the Long Island Serial Killer.

For Michelle McNamara, the writer behind the blog True Crime Diary, her siren case was the East Area Rapist of California, also referred to as the Original Night Stalker, to differentiate from the later apprehended Night Stalker, Richard Ramirez. He broke into suburban homes starting around Sacramento, tying up couples and children and raping women, sometimes escalating to murder, especially of couples. He lingered in their homes and there’s a lot of evidence that he visited some before committing the crimes, getting the lay of the land and carrying out preparations for when he struck. McNamara renamed him the Golden State Killer, a catchier nickname than EAR-ONS, what investigators dubbed him. And it’s accurate, as his crimes spanned a wide stretch of the state.

Keyed into crime after the murder of Kathleen Lombardo, a neighbor in her childhood Oak Park neighborhood (a Chicago suburb) went unsolved, McNamara’s interest in frustratingly unsolved crimes eventually led her into the strange world of this serial killer. She describes her own background and the admittedly eyebrow-raising hobby of true crime, particularly when it involves obsessive research:

To say I’d like to stop dwelling is beside the point. Sure, I’d love to clear the rot. I’m envious, for example, of people obsessed with the Civil War, which brims with details but is contained. In my case, the monsters recede but never vanish. They are long dead and being born as I write. The first one, faceless and never caught, marked me at fourteen, and I’ve been turning my back on good times in search of answers ever since.

Elsewhere she admits, There’s a scream permanently lodged in my throat now.” In fact, McNamara died in her sleep in April 2016, in part from a deadly combination of prescription drugs that might’ve stemmed from her attempts to self-medicate the anxiety and insomnia exacerbated by her obsessive research and investigative delving into records and reports from the Golden State Killer case. She was in the process of writing this book but wasn’t finished.

Part of the draw was that this case seemed solvable – over 50 rapes, a dozen murders, phone calls, physical and behavioral descriptions, a wealth of details, sketches, DNA. This is one of California’s most prolific offenders, who somehow manages to elude police even today, despite the fact that they have his DNA. As she points out, if it would be legal to enter that DNA into the increasingly popular online databases offering ancestry information, imagine the possibilities. That thought has stayed with me since reading, I can’t shake it. Legally it’s impossible, but the answer might be right there.

A serial rapist and murderer of nearly a dozen people between the late 1970s and 1986 in California, the Golden State Killer left his DNA, including some very unique, unusual markers, on victims and at crime scenes. Not to mention plenty of sightings, descriptions of odd behavior, and living witnesses to his acts, but he’s never been caught. In fact, from the impression I get from McNamara’s telling of it, they didn’t even really come too close. They had viable suspects, but DNA steadily eliminated each one.

What McNamara has managed to do with the massive amount of material available to her via law enforcement and her own meticulous, extensive research, is nothing short of extraordinary. It’s wonderful that her passion in researching and writing was appreciated enough to assemble what she’d finished of her manuscript into something coherent, adding raw material including an interview transcript and a chapter written by two researchers who assisted her on her final project.

As Paul Haynes, her lead researcher, and Billy Jensen, an investigative journalist, write in a section piecing together some material that Michelle didn’t get to polish, “Michelle’s white whale was not the Black Dahlia killer, or the Zodiac Killer, or even Jack the Ripper—infamous agents of unsolved crimes whose “bodies of work”—and thus the files of investigative source material—were relatively small.

No. Michelle was after a monster who had raped upwards of fifty women and had murdered at least ten people. There were more than fifty-five crime scenes, with thousands of pieces of evidence.”

How can it be that we still don’t know?

There’s a current of disappointment that runs throughout, even after finishing, that this person who threw herself with such a critical eye and so much passion into this work is gone. What a loss – not only of what sounds like a good, warm-hearted person (this also contains chapters of memoir related to her work on the case and how it consumed and affected her, as well as the aforementioned background of her interest in true crime) but of an unusually dedicated and fastidious researcher, willing and able to chase down any thread, no matter how old or frayed, to try and resolve this frustratingly, stubbornly unsolved mystery.

Her personal fixation is an interesting element, serving to demonstrate how as a writer and something between an armchair detective and a professional journalist she finds herself uneasily obsessed, and tries to make us understand what that feels like.

What I always think about…are experiments that show that animals in captivity would rather have to search for their food than have it given to them. Seeking is the lever that tips our dopamine gush. What I don’t mention is the uneasy realization I’ve had about how much our frenetic searching mirrors the compulsive behavior—the trampled flowerbeds, scratch marks on window screens, crank calls—of the one we seek.

Married to comedian Patton Oswalt, Michelle also had a wry, much-needed sense of humor that she deploys to great effect through the many story threads. On a trip with a detective visiting former crime scenes, she tells backstory of the towns and one includes the line, “The history of Concord, California, involves Satan and a series of misunderstandings.” She constructs an excellent scene-setting narrative around the map pinpoints of the crimes, giving ideas of the communities and residents who were targeted.

The hardest part of finishing this book is knowing Michelle’s story is over and it didn’t end with solving the mystery that she so badly wanted to, possibly even to the detriment of her own health, certainly to her peace of mind. She contributed mightily and lastingly to the search and the story, though – with professional investigators and law enforcement frequently impressed by her doggedness and what she managed to dig up. He hauntingly whispered the words of the title to a surviving victim, telling her she’ll be silent forever and I’ll be gone in the dark. And despite best efforts, he still is.

This is a frustrating and massive mystery, and as unsatisfying as it would be to know this perpetrator, as similar as he’d surely be to ones already known from similar crimes, he deserves the justice she was working to ensure he received. I hope her research was a step towards getting there. It’s made an absolutely compelling, unputdownable page-turner of a read, with some touching scenes from her own life illuminating her motivations and drive, and it’s a fitting final work from a dedicated, passionate, and unbelievably talented sleuth and writer.
4.5/5

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark:
One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer

by Michelle McNamara
published February 27, 2018 by Harper

I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.

I’ve included affiliate links from Book Depository, a great site offering free worldwide shipping. 
It means I get a small commission (at no extra expense to you) if you buy via these links.
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20 thoughts on “Attempting to Solve the Unsolvable: A Writer Delves into a California Mystery

  1. Sadly, I’d never heard of this serial killer and I follow current events. Now I can’t wait to pick this one up! It sounds so engrossing! Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I was only vaguely aware of him and this story, but had no idea how much information and evidence were available about the crimes and yet he still managed to get away. The whole thing is so bizarre. I recommend the book so much, it’s an excellent read!

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  2. Thanks for sharing this review! I follow Patton Oswalt’s comedy, so I’ve heard about this book but didn’t know much about it. I’m a true crime podcast fan, so this sounds up my alley. I’ll definitely look into it.

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      1. I finally listened to Hollywood & Crime, the season about the Black Dahlia and possibly related murders, it was so excellent. I wasn’t sure about it at first because it has actors doing reenactments but I really liked it. I’m trying to listen to Cold Case Files but the host’s voice grates on me. They cover some fascinating stories though so I’m trying to get used to it! Real Crime Profile is next on my list because former FBI profiler Jim Clemente, who I’ve seen on a bunch of true crime shows (and he was also on Hollywood & Crime) is on it and I think his insights are really fascinating. What are you listening to?

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      2. I haven’t listened to any lately. I would recommend Slate’s podcast Slow Burn…a different kind of “true crime” about Watergate. So well done.
        I’ve had the Black Dahlia podcast in my feed, I need to listen! Past ones I’ve liked are In the Dark, Accused, and Into thin Air. I’ve also been meaning to listen to Heaven’s Gate about the UFO cult who all committed suicide.

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      3. Ok this is the one I was thinking about obviously. I think I did listened to some of Into Thin Air, now that I’m googling it. It was the Wanda Lemons episode, because I watched the docuseries about the group of women missing in Chillicothe that they think are connected and I think that was the podcast that says her disappearance is something different. That’s an eerie case if you haven’t seen/heard anything about it yet!

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      4. I don’t know Slow Burn or Accused, I’ll add both of those to my library! I think I did listen to Into Thin Air (if it’s the one about the girl from Georgia) and I loved In the Dark. Heaven’s Gate sounds good too! There’s another one called Zealot that’s all about crazy religions and cults, I listened to the Scientology episode and it was hilarious. Thanks for the great recommendations!

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  3. I just finished this and I thought it was really good too! I’m definitely glad this ended up getting published and I have to say, I think my favorite parts were the bits about the author. I was blown away by the clever ways she and other amateur sleuths found to continue to work at this case and I felt drawn in by her obsession.

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