Michelle McNamara was born in Spring of 1970. One of the first things she knew was that she wanted to write, and as a young girl, she would sign all of her journal entries as, Michelle The Writer.
Tragically, she never got to witness the reaction the world has to her wonderful gift with storytelling, her first book, I’ll Be Gone In The Dark, was released in February 2018, two years after Michelle McNamara died suddenly in her sleep on April 21, 2016.
She was married to Patton Oswalt for ten years and together they have a child, a daughter named Alice who was born in 2009. Most of us here at BIGSHINYROBOT know Patton Oswalt from his assortments of comedy. His standup is fantastic, his movie appearances are always welcomed. He’s a good guy. A lot of us have met him at one Con or another, and can’t imagine anyone with anything bad to say about him.
One would think that his wife would have an equally funny disposition about life and her obsessions, but no. Michelle is a purveyor of darkness. While her family slept, Michelle would be in her office, which is also her daughter’s playroom, on her laptop meticulously researching archived files of rapes, assaults, and murder.
At the time of McNamara’s death, she had been working on the book I’ll Be Gone In The Dark for nearly three years, but her obsession with darkness and evil has been going on since she was a fourteen-year-old.
In 1985 McNamara lived near Kathy Lombardo who was attacked while out jogging. Her throat was cut and she was left dead in an alleyway. Later the next day fourteen-year-old McNamara went to the crime scene and found broken pieces of Kathy’s yellow walkman. An obsession with the unsolved mysteries and homicides was instantly born into McNamara, the young girl who up until her death was still squeamish to gore and left the room if acts of violence were happening on the TV.
In 2006 McNamara launched her blog True Crime Diary in which she states:
Covering both breaking stories and cold cases, True Crime Diary seeks to find the angle others have overlooked – a suspect’s revealing online activities, for instance, or a similarity between cases that hasn’t been made public yet. Additional information now comes from interviews with law enforcement, and victims’ family members, friends and associates. True Crime Diary is not interested in looking back at notorious criminals and saying, wow. We’re interested in looking at unfolding cases and asking, who?
The power that these cold cases have over people is immense. There are blogs dedicated to cold cases with tens of thousands of posts from people who in their spare time are trying to solve unsolved murders. From students to professors, retired detectives, family members of the deceased, and hobbyists alike, these strangers are working together to take power away from an evil hidden individual. That power is in his anonymity, his blank face that fills in with police sketches and blows away at a sudden gust of wind.
The Golden State Killer is McNamara’s white whale and the key focus of I’ll Be Gone In The Dark. The serial killer, serial rapist, and serial burglar who killed at least twelve people raped more than fifty and burglarized more than one hundred homes from Northern California to Southern California from 1974 to 1986.
All the cases were eerily similar in the details. He had an intimate knowledge of the layout of the home, knew the names of the victims he was attacking, and the hours of their coming and going from the house. The Golden State Killer would case homes prolifically before committing his crimes. Squatting in nearby houses for sale, victims would come home and find the doors unlocked when they swore they locked them. Office doors closed which were never closed by the family. The Golden State Killer would clad be in all black, with a mask and gloves. A statue like figure standing in the hallway, then suddenly blinding you with a bright flashlight. Guttural clenched teeth whispers that would explode into a high pitched rage, he would order his victims around, forcing them to act out pleasure as he had the cold steel of a knife pressed to their throat. He didn’t start off with murder, he graduated up to it as the years went. His first victims were from rape, even when their children were home.
Often he would keep the child in the room as he committed his egregious and horrific crimes. Women often said he would be hysterically sobbing afterwards, apologizing to his mother.
The Golden State Killer would then go on to attacking couples. He would start off the same way, a figure in the hall clad in black with a mask on. Blinding his victims with a flashlight, then forcing the woman to bind the man, he would then stack plates on the back of the bound men, and tell him if he heard them fall he’d shoot everyone the house. He would demand cash and food, but ignore both. He took random, weird mementos. Cufflinks, wedding bands, and other low-value items while ignoring the more expensive things in the homes.
In one case his victim was able to get out of her bindings and run out of the house screaming while the psychopath was ransacking the house. Her next door neighbor was an FBI agent. The Golden State Killer took off running and got on a 10 speed bike, the FBI agent was pursuing him in a car, and had a shot at him with his .38 special, but didn’t know the details of what was happening, he didn’t realize who was in his sights, and the Golden State Killer got away. It was the last time his victims would ever be left alive.
It’s all the data that kept Michelle up at night. Too much data. The Golden State Killer left his DNA all across the state and even as technology was catching up to him they never found a match. Close calls, many that they were sure was the right one, only to be rendered wrong by the DNA testing. Michelle would spend all night combing through archived yearbooks of the 70’s looking at men’s calves because one victim described him as having large legs. So obsessed with the Golden State Killer, Michelle would forget things like anniversaries with her husband. At movie premieres, she would skip out to talk to detectives who had a lead on something.
As dark as the writing material is, it’s the goodness of Michelle that really captures the reader’s attention. The Yin and Yang this book has through its spine are like nothing else. We roll along reading these dark, terrifying crimes of this one sadistic man, but it’s the optimism and honesty from Michelle that keeps you glued to the pages. She gives these victims clarity you rarely see nonfiction true crime novels, while most authors give you the grisly details of a crime scene, Michelle doesn’t shy away from the horror but also tells you about the women. Who they were, what they were like. Michelle tells you about the receding Orange trees in California and railways that were losing out to the newly constructed highways. We get to stand with her in the quiet, middle-class cul de sac as she looks at old crime scenes. We look over her shoulder as she takes notes in crayon in her daughter’s playroom / her office.
I’ll Be Gone In The Dark is an irresistible, un-put-downable read. Something we humans all have in common is the lure of a puzzle, and we all see things differently. Every single one of us all has something different and unique to offer.
“It really confirmed for me that inside everyone lurks a Sherlock Holmes that believes that given the right amount of clues they could solve a mystery. If the challenge here, or perceived weakness, is that the unsolved aspect will leave readers unfulfilled, why not turn that on its head and use it as a strength?”
Sadly, Michelle never got to finish her first and only book. Passing away in her sleep in 2016, those she trusted and worked with most trying to solve the Golden State Killer case helped piece together the last chapter with the files they received from McNamara’s laptop, and we’re left with a feeling of hope that one day we will catch this lunatic.*
I highly recommend Michelle McNamara’s I’ll Be Gone In The Dark. Written with obsessive details and haunting imagery, it’s a book that is filled with enough darkness to hollow you out, while Michelle fills you back in with hope and page turning, effortless, skillful storytelling.
* In April 2018 the Golden State Killer was apprehended in Sacramento California after DNA evidence linked Joseph James DeAngelo, a 72-year-old former police officer to the crimes committed in the 70’s and 80’s.