The work has many notable qualities — in particular, a penetrating and elegiac voice — but the one that stands out most is its author’s death of an accidental overdose while writing it. Patton Oswalt will discuss his late wife’s book March 7 at Broadway Performance Hall.
“I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer”
by Michelle McNamara
Harper Books, 328 pp., $27.99
Picture a young mother sitting up all night in her daughter’s playroom, teeth brushed, pajamas on, peering into the bright light of a computer screen. This was Michelle McNamara in 2012, so obsessed with nailing the identity of an elusive serial killer that, in the end, it may have killed her.
McNamara, a television writer and amateur sleuth, believed she was zeroing in on a serial rapist and murderer responsible for more than 50 unsolved assaults in California during the 1970s and ’80s, a case that turned to wisps decades ago. “It takes hubris to think you can crack a complex serial murder case,” she writes with disarming candor on the third page of “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark,” her book narrating the chase.
The work has many notable qualities — in particular, a penetrating and elegiac voice — but the one that stands out most is its author’s death of an accidental overdose while writing it. McNamara’s researcher, Paul Haynes, paired up with investigative journalist Billy Jensen to complete this nonfiction genre-buster, boosted with an introduction by Gillian Flynn and an afterword by McNamara’s husband, the actor and comedian Patton Oswalt.
Clearly, this writer was no typical would-be detective. She accompanied her husband at Hollywood movie premieres, surreptitiously scanning her iPhone for emailed leads on a man she’d dubbed the Golden State Killer, while Oswalt mugged for the cameras. But police investigators recognized a colleague, and allowed McNamara to burrow through 35 boxes of evidence, searching for overlooked clues. There were thousands of pieces from 55 crime scenes, a tsunami of detail that might overwhelm readers, were it not for McNamara’s other talents.
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“The Ransacker was as prolific as he was weird,” she wrote, describing her quarry’s early days. He preferred to steal personal items like photographs and wedding rings, leaving behind objects of greater value. “Investigators noted that he seemed to have a thing for hand lotion.” Domesticity, in particular, enraged him. He’d tear up family photos and break picture frames. “He unplugged appliances and clock radios. He liked to take single earrings from pairs. The Ransacker was big on spite.”
“I’ll Be Gone” darts from his horrific assaults to passages sketching McNamara’s childhood outside Chicago and descriptions of her later life on the hunt. Along the way, it breaks a number of taboos. In one of the most satisfying passages, McNamara speaks directly to her nemesis. “After May 4, 1986, you disappear. Some think you died. Or went to prison. Not me. I think you bailed when the world began to change,” she writes, alluding to the DNA and internet technologies that supercharged her own search. “You cut out when you looked over your shoulder and saw your opponents gaining on you.”
It’s a tantalizing thought. But, if true, it would make the Golden State Killer a criminal disciplined enough to curb his obsessions, which seems at odds with reports of a man who wept during some assaults, whimpering, “Mommy, please help me. I don’t want to do this, Mommy.”
Crime writing increasingly has become a balancing act, pairing the effort to trace torqued criminal minds with an examination of the author’s motivation to do so. McNamara dates her own cold-case obsessions back to the murder of a neighbor in Oak Park, Illinois, when she was 14. Teenage Michelle walked over to the crime scene, discovered shattered pieces of the victim’s Walkman and held them in her hands, wondering. The case remains unsolved to this day.
“I need to see his face,” she writes three decades later. “He loses power when we know his face.”
Her present-day compulsions don’t get much deeper analysis in these pages. But McNamara is keenly aware of the ways they echo those of the man she hunts. She writes of standing by her husband’s bedside, starring down at Oswalt while he sleeps, much as the Golden State Killer watched his victims before jolting them awake with a piercing flashlight shone in their eyes.
The obsession she discusses with others. “What I don’t mention,” she admits, “is the uneasy realization I’ve had about how much our frenetic searching mirrors the compulsive behavior — the trampled flowerbeds, scratch marks on window screens, crank calls — of the one we seek.”
Punctuated with an editor’s notes explaining where sections have been pieced together from McNamara’s files, “I’ll Be Gone” provides an unusual freeze-frame look at one writer on the verge of dispelling her lifelong nightmare. She may yet succeed.
Patton Oswalt will discuss his late wife Michelle McNamara’s book, “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer,” at 7 p.m. Wednesday, March 7, at Broadway Performance Hall, 1625 Broadway, Seattle; $35, admits one person and includes a copy of the book and an audience Q&A (206-624-6600 or elliottbaybook.com).