Book Review - I'll Be Gone In The Dark by Michelle McNamara
Updated: Nov 30, 2018
A superb look at a surprisingly unknown real life monster, and the surprising humanity that Michelle McNamara brings to his examination.
He pointed a knife at her and issued a chilling warning: “Make one move and you’ll be silent forever and I’ll be gone in the dark.”
Though this one was on my radar for a while, it was sitting comfortably in my TBR pile, forever getting shuffled down the priority list for other books more within my wheelhouse. And had it not been for a local bookclub having it as the next read, it would have stayed a TBR for an indeterminate amount of time, forever in line but never quite reaching the turnstile.
I’ll be the first to admit that true-crime isn’t really a genre I read very much. While I have a marginally unhealthy fascination with the darker, seedier side of humanity, including knowing more about serial killers than I probably should, I still tend to prefer fictional villains over real ones. But even if I don’t read a lot of true-crime books, even I can tell that I'll Be Gone In The Dark is something special. While most of the true-crime novels that I have read were written by investigators who were aspiring writers, Michelle McNamara was a writer first and foremost, with a natural talent for investigation that slowly became an obsession. As such, I'll Be Gone In The Dark has a much different feel than other novels of its ilk. It actually has vivid prose, impactful insight, and a large dose of humanity, standing tall above the generally cold & clinical delivery of similar stories. But though it has a writer’s execution, I'll Be Gone In The Dark does not suffer from a lack of detail. To the contrary, there are plenty of details here, but they are delivered in a way that never feels heavy-handed or like an information dump. Everything is doled out in a confident but easy manner, and much like in the story of the three bears, it’s neither
too hot nor too cold…instead it’s just right.
Most violent criminals smash through life like human sledgehammers. They have fists for hands and can’t plan beyond their sightlines. They’re caught easily. They talk too much. They return to the scene of the crime, as conspicuous as tin cans on a bumper. But every so often a blue moon surfaces. A snow leopard slinks by.
It’s honestly difficult to review this book in any real capacity, as everything I would want to say has been said already by reviewers more talented than I. And given the amount of spotlight this book and Michelle have received since its release, there’s really very little left to discuss that isn’t already known by most of the folks who have an interest in this story. Yes, she died before the book was complete. Yes, she was married to Patton Oswalt, one of my favorite comedians. Yes, the Golden State Killer/East Area Rapist was recently caught, though the trial will likely continue for some time. But beyond all that, the book does pose one interesting question that I still can’t seem to wrap my head around: why was this man relatively unknown outside of the cities where he operated? I mean, given the tragic death of Michelle, the success of this book, and the fact that he was finally caught, I can see why he’s on the public radar now. But, during his most prolific period, and even in the years after, unless you lived in those areas of California, you wouldn’t have even heard of the EAR-ONS (East Area Rapist – Original Night Stalker).
Yet he was still out there blending in, a man whose ordinariness was his mask.</b>
Hell, even living in those areas in the 80’s as I was growing up, he was barely mentioned, seeming more like a distant relative, infrequently discussed but never actually seen. As a kid, you’d see some of the evidence wrought by his legacy; motion sensing lights on houses when nobody else in the neighborhood had them, bars on windows in areas that were affluent and crime free, extra reinforced sliding glass doors (wooden dowel or iron bar across the inside track), etc. But as a kid, I mostly accepted those things as just “the way it is”, without much thought to the why behind it
all. It was only as I got older, and heard some of the scuttlebutt and rumors that some of the dots started to get connected in my post-adolescent brain.
Even now, after reading I'll Be Gone In The Dark, it’s crazy to think about just how much I DIDN’T know about EAR-ONS. I lived in both Rancho Cordova (and yes, we called it Rancho Cambodia too) and Citrus Heights in the mid-to-late 90’s, and while there were allusions and off-hand remarks, nobody ever openly talked about him. I shopped in Sunrise Mall on many occasions, went to American River College for a spell, and was at least tangentially familiar with many of the more southern cities he had targeted. Again, lingering evidence of his legacy was everywhere, but actual conversations about him were relatively non-existent.
”A criminal is more vulnerable in his history than his future,” writes David Canter, a leading British crime psychologist, in his book Criminal Shadows.
The only thing I can think of is that it’s due to him not being caught during his spree of rapes & murders. Without that sense of closure, without that trial and a sentence being handed out, and without that news reel or newspaper image of the perpetrator behind bars, people simply didn’t want to bring up bad juju. It’s one thing to talk about a predator who is safely locked away, forever restricted from causing more trauma and grief to the general populace. But when the predator is still out there, and with no clear cut identifier other than a gender, a rough age, and a height of 5’9”, people simply didn’t want to invoke the devil by talking about him.
They hunted a man whose face they didn’t know. Didn’t matter. The action of moving forward, their hands unrestrained, of physically doing something, was all that did.
And maybe I’m just weird (actually, there’s no maybe about that), but while I am generally just fine with reading about killings of various depravity, I really struggle with descriptions of rape. Not that I condone murder, because I certainly don’t, but I’m also of the mindset that the world would be better off without some of the people in it. Now I’m not talking about innocent victims, like the ones that the Golden State Killer targeted, but if I’m being perfectly honest, there are some serious pieces of human shit out there that would make the world a better place without them in it. But while I’m like “yeah, that guy could get murdered and it would be alright”, I have never and could never wish rape upon anyone. Especially how EAR-ONS eventually operating, targeting couples, raping the woman while the man was powerless to stop it. The whole concept of rape is just abhorrent to me, and, I still believe, to the vast majority of society. So getting through those parts of the book were a bit of a struggle for me. Especially given how insensitive and ignorant we still are as a society to the concept and fallout of rape. Hell, just look at the account of the Stanford rapist and how the suspect’s father, and even the judge presiding over the case, deemed it as something minor, something she should just “get over”. It’s only within the past few years that the topic has started to gain the attention it deserves, though we are obviously still way behind where we should be. Do we abhor it? Yes. Do we really give it the consideration it deserves? Evidently not.
Therein lay the puzzle. Chance wins eventually. Luck is unreliable. How did he survey so long without being surveyed?
There are several instances in I'll Be Gone In The Dark where the fallout from these crimes is put front and center. A father who can’t let go until he knows why his child was targeted. A few snippets of text about marriages ruined and intimacy forever foregone. The anger and frustration felt by those who hunted him, but were ultimately unable to bring him to justice. I think this is where Michelle McNamara shines especially bright. Sure, she gives us incredibly in-depth looks into the methods of the perpetrator, a bevy of clues and conclusions, and a spot-on glimpse into the time period in which these events occurred, but she also gives us unfettered insight into the myriad people most affected by his crimes. A story is just a story if you can’t connect it to anything emotional, and Michelle gives us plenty of emotion to connect to. Ultimately, it’s the human element that Michelle captures so well, especially when she’s peering back at herself, that makes this book the triumph that it is.
All night I avoided him. I never looked him in the eye. Despite the gin, I was still the girl in the back of the classroom, watchful, never watched.
Out of all of the genres of books that I read, none can be more closely related to the truth than horror books. If you take out the supernatural, and just focus on the human monster, you’ll realize that there are plenty of those stories happening around us already. That’s what makes the stories as terrifying as they are…the truth is just as awful and horrific as fiction. I’ll still primarily focus on fictional tales of horror for sure, but given the extent of this man’s crimes, I doubt anything I read will compare to the actual horror inflicted by this very real perpetrator. Especially since I grew up in the area where he was committing his crimes. Monsters ARE real, and some of them are hidden in plain sight, and most of us never know when they cross our paths.
In my case, the monsters recede but never vanish. They are long dead and being born as I write.
Even if you aren’t necessarily a true-crime reader, I strongly urge you to give I'll Be Gone In The Dark a read. It’s a chilling tale, but one that’s told with such care and compassion that it elevates it above its peers. And while the foreword by Gillian Flynn really wasn’t necessary, the afterword by Michelle’s husband Patton Oswalt, and Michelle’s own open letter to EAR-ONS at the end of the book, give insight to a wonderful talent who was sadly taken from us too soon.
I remember that she dissuaded me from trying out for cheerleading in high school. “Don’t you want to be the one cheered?” she said.
5 out 5 surreptitious stars!