I love true crime, and I read and watch a lot of documentaries about different serial killers; some who have been caught and others who took their secrets to their graves. It’s often easy to forget that True Crime is Non-Fiction—that you are reading about someone, or multiple someone’s, very personal tragedy. You get that filter of time where something horrific has occurred a hundred years ago, and it’s easy to forget that these were real people who had something horrendous happen to them. That isn’t the case with “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark”. McNamara never lets you forget that this man, this serial rapist and murderer, is a real person, a real terror that did his prowling up and down California for decades. The people he tormented are still alive, some of them anyway, or their families remain to carry the burden of not having answers as to why, why, why? Until recently. McNamara was obsessive about tracking down clues, weeding through the red herrings of this long standing crime. She didn’t care who caught this man, as long as someone did. She was tenacious and dogged about following leads and working with investigators to follow up on things she found peculiar, but weren’t explored at the time of the crime. Unfortunately, she died half way through writing the book, which is bad for a number of reasons.
McNamara’s writing is wonderful, it’s atmospheric, it’s teasing, it can be creepy at times, and it really feels like you’re reading a thriller rather than a police report. She handles the details of these horrific rapes and murders with care because the families of the victims are still alive, still living with an unsolved mystery—or they were. The perpetrator is caught! But not while McNamara was writing. There’s some back and forth whether or not she was instrumental in the killer’s capture, police say no, her researcher and husband (Patton Oswalt) say yes. I’m not sure, however, she did coin the moniker “The Golden State Killer” which police use, and it really can’t be understated what kind of power a catchy name has when it comes to keeping someone’s interest when there are so many other unsolved cases. But what everyone agrees on was that her interest in the matter brought the case forward and always kept it from going completely cold in public opinion, so that did certainly help.
Regardless of how much her research helped or not, it is tragic she did not live to see this monster brought to justice. But, I don’t know if this book would have ever been published if it hadn’t been for her famous husband pushing it forward as a homage to the woman he so dearly loved. The timeline of events jumps all over the place so trying to follow along with which crimes occurred where and when can be a chore. Many of the chapters are pieced together from her editor and researcher based on her notes and it shows in a kind of choppiness that McNamara’s writing usually doesn’t have. Of the 50+ crimes this man committed, very few are actually covered, as this book is partially that tribute to her passion for uncovering long forgotten murderers who think they got away with their crimes. We get a lot of personal anecdotes about McNamara and snap shots of her life and her process, but not much about the crimes or the investigative process for more than just a few of the instances. The book, the subject matter, have such a strong start, but crumble at the finish line because of the author’s untimely death and it shows and I hate to say it, but I didn’t love it, and that made me sad.
I did enjoy the book, I really did! McNamara’s writing is a treat when it is her chapters. But it does feel cobbled together at times and that hurts for something that is otherwise so well presented. I think had she lived we would have gotten something truly amazing, and I would have loved to see how the book might have changed or been updated when the murderer was caught so long after the initial crimes were committed. You can always feel the author and her researchers getting close… and then the killer eludes them and it’s this wonderful cat and mouse that I wish it could have continued. That’s obviously not the author’s fault. It’s just upsetting that her work suffered at the hands of those who completed it for her. They did their best, and I’m glad they chose to honor her in this way, but the way the book is pieced together with the timeline and the random jumps from past to present, this book lacked cohesion at times. I still would recommend it though, as this may have been simply my expectations were too high with all the hype this book got, or the issues may be more of a “me” thing than anything else, especially if you love true crime and thrillers. But for me, this is a pretty easy 3 star read.
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