Michelle McNamara’s I’ll be Gone in the Dark about the Golden State Killer (previously known as the East Area Rapist/Original Night Stalker) is certainly a true crime book about a vicious murderer and his victims. But it is also a story of investigators who never give up, anonymous internet detectives poring over evidence, and McNamara herself, a compassionate writer with a mind like a knife. It is a different kind of tragedy that McNamara died before her book was published and before they found the Golden State Killer through familial DNA.
The tragedies that McNamara recounts in the book feel urgently present. She has a gift for bringing people to life on the page, from the victims to the detectives. She is never disrespectful, but she is detailed. She manages to provide unvarnished truth while never forgetting people’s humanity.
I have long been a true crime buff, as they say. I have devoured books and TV shows. The number of true crime Amazon video I’ve purchased faintly alarmed my mother one time when we were searching for something to watch. I almost got cable just so I could watch shows on Investigation Discovery. Sometimes I have a true crime show on when I’m doing my chores.
I have always felt guilty about my interest in crime. I am acutely aware that crimes affect real people, that the loved ones of crime victims are left devastated, that those victims who have to live on are almost destroyed by their experiences. Who am I to be a voyeur to their pain, just because of my interest in solving tragic puzzles?
McNamara’s book reveals her obsession with solving the Golden State Killer case, but it also shows the ways that an interest in true crime can be a humane endeavor. The victims are given a voice—they are not forgotten. Their families and friends are given a chance to talk about their pain, to be listened to with compassion. We can witness the drive crime investigators have to see justice is done. When presented in a non-exploitive manner, these stories ensure no one is forgotten, that they mattered. I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is a good example of this.
Miraculously, the Golden State Killer was found after McNamara died. While her book did not crack the case—DNA did—her investigative skills and writing talent give the reader the scope of the crime and the methods used to track the killer down. While it was a hard book to read, I also found it fascinating and empathetic. For those who are interested in true crime, this is a superior account.