From Patton Oswalt's late wife, the decade-in-the-making true crime book is a near-masterwork
Michelle McNamara spent nearly a decade researching I’ll Be Gone in the Dark before her sudden death at the age of 46. Most every night, while the rest of her family — husband, comedian/actor Patton Oswalt, and their young daughter, Alice — was sound asleep, she’d scan internet archives and police reports related to the “Golden State Killer,” an unidentified man believed to have committed at least 50 sexual assaults and 10 murders across California from 1976 to 1986. Her mission wasn’t merely, or even primarily, to write a book about him — it was to solve the case.
The book is landing in the midst of an explosive true crime boom, with the popularity of (and debate around) programs such as Serial and Making a Murderer helping to bolster the genre’s visibility. McNamara operated as an accomplished armchair detective for years, gaining notoriety for her cold case website True Crime Diary and her articles on the Golden State Killer published by Los Angeles Magazine. But I’ll Be Gone is more of a personal endeavor than your typical true crime effort. The book isn’t so much about finding a killer as it is about wanting to find a killer.
While McNamara was — spoiler alert — ultimately unable to unmask the killer’s identity, her book is reflective and candid in such a way that it still produces revelations. The narrative sways back and forth throughout. Some chapters function as vivid autobiography, with McNamara illustrating just how consuming this process of pursuit was for her. (In one passage, her eyes are glued to her phone at a red carpet film premiere, absorbing new case-clues while Oswalt mingles around her.) Other chapters describe — with unbearable clarity — encounters between the Golden State Killer and his victims. Via the former, we develop a nuanced understanding of our storyteller; via the latter, we fall into her storytelling rhythms.
What we discover, beautifully, is McNamara’s interest in human beings. There’s a spooky, suspenseful magic to the way the author constructs bite-sized short stories — tales of jealous siblings, happy young couples, impulsive children and “stony” parents — and infuses them with that lurking inevitability of terrible, potentially deadly crimes. McNamara is unsparing in explaining the killer’s macabre habits, but ethically so, favoring information over indulgence and emotion over gore. She’s also able to perfectly execute the procedural aspect of true crime: She seems most at home when detailing prolonged police work, showing off her alacritous prose while still managing to subvert the genre’s conventions.
This book, of course, has a complex and tragic backstory. Though much of I’ll Be Gone had already been completed by the time McNamara unexpectedly died in her sleep in April 2016, it was left to Oswalt (who also writes the afterword) and others to compile her unassembled research and notes into a finished product. The book is divided into three parts: The first two are written by McNamara, and the slim third is by her lead researcher, Paul Haynes, and crime journalist Billy Jensen.
There’s a twinge of melancholy here, given the firsthand nature of McNamara’s writing. In the way she mulls over her obsession with the mysterious and the unseemly, her narration is essential: You can practically smell her laptop overheating in the dark of the night, see her eyes flicker at the news of a clue, feel every beat in her painstaking research methods. It’s why the book’s patchwork in Part 3 — effective as it is — can’t quite compensate for the loss of her voice. And yet this is all part of what makes I’ll Be Gone such a singular, fascinating read. It’s lifelike in its incompletion. Had McNamara lived to wrap this book on her own, one suspects the end result could have been a masterwork. It still is, mostly — a posthumous treasure that feels thrillingly alive. A-