June 13, 2018

Book Review: "I'll Be Gone In The Dark" by Michelle McNamara

For more than ten years, a mysterious and violent predator committed fifty sexual assaults in Northern California before moving south, where he perpetrated ten sadistic murders.  Then he disappeared, eluding capture by multiple police forces and some of the best detectives in the area.

Three decades later, Michelle McNamara, a true crime journalist who created the popular website "True Crime Diary," was determined to find the violent psychopath she called "The Golden State Killer."  Michelle poured over police reports, interviewed victims, and embedded herself in the online communities that were as obsessed with the case as she was.  

I'll Be Gone in the Dark -- the masterpiece McNamara was writing at the time of her sudden death -- offers an atmospheric snapshot of a moment in American history and a chilling account of a criminal mastermind and the wreckage he left behind.  It is also a portrait of a woman's obsession and her unflagging pursuit of the truth.  Utterly original and compelling, it has been hailed as a modern true crime classic -- one which fulfilled Michelle's dream; helping unmask The Golden State Killer. - from Amazon   

As a true crime aficionado (which sounds very strange to anyone who doesn't read true crime because why would you enjoy reading about people being killed?), I had heard of The Golden State Killer aka The East Area Rapist aka The Original Night Stalker.  Not only did this guy have a lot of victims, he also had a lot of aliases.  Having lived in southern California for a number of years, the case was often revisited in the local media on anniversaries of the attacks and/or deaths and I followed them.  I watched Investigation Discovery's "documentary" on the rapist-murderer and finished the show searching for more information.  That search led me to Ms. McNamara's book, which I reserved at my local library as requester number 37.  I was lucky.  It quickly jumped to over 60.  No joke.

When my number finally came up and I was able to pick up my copy, as luck would have it, a suspect was arrested in connection with the case days after.  So while reading, I was somewhat anxiously looking to see if the suspect's name was mentioned.

So let's get to my thoughts on the book.

Unlike some, or most, true crime books, this one does not progress in chronological order.  For instance, it starts with a 1981 murder rather than the actual start of the crime spree in the 1970s.  The book continues to jump around, from the 1970s and 1980s to present day, throughout.  If you prefer things orderly, this may upset you.  If you don't have an issue with the order of things, you may still find it confusing (raises hand.)

This is obviously not a spoiler since it happened in 2016 and is clearly mentioned in summaries of the book but Ms. McNamara died before she finished the book.  At times the writing does come off disjointed and I attribute that to her early death.  Some chapters begin and/or end with notations that the verbiage was lifted directly from her notes, which were more of a draft, and it does, in part, read that way.

This also shouldn't be a spoiler given the book's publication date compared with the suspect's arrest but there is no true ending.  The case was still officially unsolved at publication meaning a somewhat unsatisfactory ending.  For some readers, that's a no-go.

My biggest issue with I'll Be Gone in the Dark was that it fizzled for me by the halfway point.  The reading felt laborious and I caught myself alternating between speed reading (to get to "the good stuff") and my mind wandering.

Not that the book was wholly negative.  I appreciated that Ms. McNamara excellently explained not only how the perpetrator got away with so many assaults for so many years but, as a reader, plopped you down in the Sacramento area circa 1970s.  She shared facts about the cases that had not been previously disclosed, helping the reader to understand the nature of the time, place, and attacks.

One of my greatest pet peeves about true crime writing is the negligence of the author to make the victims into real people rather than just a list of the assaulted and/or dead.  Ms. McNamara does reveal characteristics of the victims, good and bad, showing their humanity.  She also writes of the domino effect that rapes and murders have on the survivors/surviving family members -- marriages destroyed, loved ones left devastated, without justice.

I greatly admire Michelle McNamara.  She was a lifelong writer and creator of The True Crime Diary; her passion was real.  She was a ride or die chick, as evidenced by the byline of this book - - One Woman's Obsessive Search for The Golden State Killer.  The Golden State Killer nickname was one she coined.  To say she threw herself into this investigation 100% is no understatement.  She lived and breathed this case, which couldn't have been easy.  

However, while I'll Be Gone in the Dark has some solid parts and is timely, I was left disappointed.  I felt the book had the potential to be smashing, and a wonderful tribute to Ms. McNamara, but it fell short.  Perhaps having the book organized in chronological order would have altered my view somewhat.  I'm conflicted on this one because Ms. McNamara is a good writer and she tackles a tough, yet fascinating subject.  But it just didn't completely work for me.

The summary above claims the book is destined to become a true crime classic but I must disagree.  It simply cannot be put in the same category as Helter Skelter, Fatal Vision, The Stranger Beside Me, Small Sacrifices, Bitter Blood or the like.  As a disclaimer, I also feel that In Cold Blood falls short of being a classic so maybe I just have no idea.

I'll Be Gone in the Dark is available at major booksellers, on Audible and at your local library.

FTC Disclosure:  I obtained this book at my local public library.  I was neither paid nor compensated for this review. 

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