A love/hate relationship with I'll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara
After reading I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara, I have some strong feelings. I would describe it as a love/hate relationship. Love, because the subject matter and the beautifully written anecdotes about family and life. Hate…well that’s a bit more complicated, and I’m pretty sure is an unpopular opinion when it comes to the best-seller. This true crime story is one of tragedy, violence and the ugly side of human nature, but I didn’t feel connected to the narrative. I found myself hoping for more anecdotes and—spoiler alert—was majorly upset when I realized McNamara never found out who the killer was before she died.
More facts, more problems. McNamara’s account of the Golden State Killer, a name she came up with to refer to the prolific rapist and murderer, was extremely in depth—almost to a fault. I wasn’t sure which facts I should hold onto and remember for later, and which facts were disposable. I don’t think it was necessary to know the exact time a rape occurred, or the backstory of every victim, or even the layout of each town the killer frequented. As a writer and journalist, I needed McNamara to sift through the facts for me—not present each one like she would in a newspaper article. There were too many facts that weren’t presented in chronological order for me to truly comprehend the relevance of each case and the story felt disjointed, fragmented without a proper flow. There was a lack of context that I felt needed to be addressed when it came down to the gruesome details. Her writing style, which can be engaging and captivating in her own voice, shifted to a regurgitation of police press releases when she described the facts. It was what I would want out of an article or deep dive on a Wikipedia page, rather than a book by a talented journalist who followed the case for years. What I craved was the human side of the stories, which I received in small doses when family members of victims or detectives were interviewed. What I also craved was more of McNamara’s brilliant writing about her own family, her relationship with her mother and the reason why she became so intrigued with cold cases. Her stories were far more interesting than laying down the bare facts of each rape or murder.
The internet has ruined every good mystery. This isn’t McNamara’s fault. In fact, she died before the release of the book and her fellow research assistants completed it posthumously. What I found frustrating was when I realized the alleged Golden State Killer was arrested in April 2018. (DNA recently cleared him of a 1975 murder, so it may not even be him.) With some light internet snooping and research (as to not completely ruin the end of the book), I knew that McNamara died before the suspect, a 73-year-old man, was charged. This really angered me. There were all these facts, anecdotes and dead ends—and after all this, McNamara did not know the killer’s identity. Why drag me through chapters—jam-packed with facts, pictures of victims, composite sketches, descriptions—when the killer still remained at large and completely unknown to her?
I know, I know. It’s a book for people who do want all the facts and minuscule details, no matter how crucial or irrelevant—but to me, it was like if you read a book by Charles Darwin and then he said, “Oh, but I’ve never actually been to the Galapagos Islands!” Not to take away from the countless hours McNamara spent at the scenes of the crime, speaking to detectives and interviewing victims’ families. But, she wasn’t there when the crimes occurred. Over the decades, places and people change. And it’s the lack of immediate knowledge that leaves me wondering why such a detailed account is necessary, rather than an overview. (Again, I understand people want as many details as possible.) I think the reason true crime can be so fascinating is because those who write it become completely immersed in the world of the killers or victims. But in this respect, I thought the book fell a little flat because of the incredible access we already have to such information online. Instead, what I wanted from a book like this was an insider’s scoop. The reason a book like In Cold Blood by Truman Capote is so strong and dazzling is because of the author’s access to the murderers and his understanding of the town of Holcomb, Kansas. Ditto for John Grisham’s The Innocent Man, in which he interviews the wrongfully accused Ron Williamson and others directly involved. I realize it’s impossible for a cold case to have this kind of access, obviously because the killer is unknown and the crimes were committed a long time ago, but in this case, I think the story would have been stronger with more anecdotes and personality, inserted by McNamara herself.
DNA will solve it. The last chapters discuss how McNamara thought the case would be solved. I thought this was a cop out, in a way, because it seems clear to me (as an average person) that obviously DNA would be the only way to find the killer so many years after the crimes. I know this might not be the ending McNamara had planned because she had already passed when the book was published. I find it odd that the last chapters would be dedicated to essentially guessing how it would all end. This is the reason why, when searching for Dateline episodes, I only watch the ones that say “solved” in the description. (The way McNamara was drawn to cold cases is the way I’m drawn to solved ones. I can’t stand not knowing, and perhaps that’s a major reason why this book just wasn’t really for me.) I don’t see the reason why I should know or remember the details of a murder or rape only to be left hanging at the end. Of course, some stories are worth knowing and some cold cases can, in fact, be solved decades later (especially with the public’s help or with DNA), but I really can’t stand a story that isn’t wrapped up with a bow by the end of it. And I can’t be the only one who’s like this, right? I guess I should have known after the 10-minute rant by the Indigo saleswoman when I was buying the book. She let it slip that McNamara’s peers finished the book for her, erroneously stated McNamara was murdered (completely untrue because she died of an overdose) and that the killer was still at large. Oops. So I was forewarned. But I didn’t entirely hate all of the ending. The letter penned by McNamara to the Golden State Killer was masterful and beautifully written, like the rest of her anecdotes. It was poetic and foreboding with short, commanding sentences like, “This is how it ends for you.”