I have so much to say about this book I don’t know how to organize it, and I’m still not sure what I’m going to rate it even as I type this; and I’m still freaked out by it, and still sad, and I want the Golden State Killer caught, but what if he’s dead?? If he’s dead, we’re never going to catch him!! ARGGGGh.
Okay, so I’ve been looking forward to this book ever since I heard about it, back before Michelle McNamara died in April 2016. The Golden State Killer was also and formerly known as EAR/ONS–an acronym for the East Area Rapist/Original Night Stalker. McNamara actually coined the name Golden State Killer after the EAR and the ONS were discovered to be the same man after he’d escalated to killing his victims. Uncovering the real identity of the man that raped over fifty women in the late 1970s, and murdered at least ten people years later, consumed McNamara’s life. She spent years collecting data and re-interviewing witnesses, getting to know former and present investigators and spending most of every night online with other GSK obsessives and amateur detectives, to the point where she had practically insinuated herself into the official investigation, and was a welcome presence there. She probably would have kept at it until it was solved, if she had lived.
(And it’s inescapable to think as you read, knowing that she died and how, and also knowing that even though no one is saying it, that the investigation is at least partly responsible for her death. As McNamara herself readily acknowledges in the book, this case consumed her life, and she frequently thought of herself as a sort of mirror for the GSK. She would investigate instead of sleeping at night. The feeling that he was just out of reach haunted her. She felt the same impulses that led him to kill, the compulsions, were the impulses she felt in her quest to find him, the burning desire to bring him to justice.)
As for the book itself, it’s so tough to rate like I normally would. Part of me wants to give this an unapologetic five stars, for the book I know it would have been had she lived. The finished parts are so full of McNamara herself, and her writing was so incisive and compassionate. She radiates out of these pages. It’s not often that you get the combo of “great writer” and “true crime”, but Michelle had chops. And when it descends into full-out memoir for fifty pages, you don’t even care; in fact, you welcome that chapter when it comes because you want more of her as well as more of her insight into the GSK.
But it’s impossible not to be aware that the book is still “unfinished”. The people who completed the book for her (mostly her fellow researcher and amateur detective, Paul Haynes, and journalist Billy Jensen) always note when a section was compiled from her notes rather than completed by her. One section in particular they note is probably a third the size it would have been had she had the chance to investigate and fill it out as planned. Those sections always felt like they were missing something. (Gillian Flynn wrote the introduction, which I wasn’t super impressed with, but her husband Patton Oswalt’s afterword was lovely.)
Because of her book deadline, though, I feel like it’s important to note that Michelle herself knew most likely the killer wouldn’t be caught by the time she published. The end of the book was always most likely going to be an opening up, an invitation to the rest of us to join the hunt if we wanted to.
The very, very end of the book, though. She definitely wrote that. The last chapter is an epilogue, entitled “Letter to an Old Man,” which is Michelle writing to the killer, imploring him to come out into the light. It’s the best writing in the book, and you can tell it was something she must have written early on, something she felt keenly. It was the perfect end to the book.
I highly recommend this, even if you don’t normally like true crime.
Read Harder Challenge 2018: A book of true crime.