{Book Review} I’ll Be Gone in the Dark By Michelle McNamara

As a fan of horror, it takes a lot to scare me enough to keep me up at night. More often than not, I feel the rush of fear from a story I am reading or watching, but it fades quickly with little to no long-term effect. I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, on the other hand, had me shook. I had two sleepless nights in a row from reading the book and re-checked the set of nunchucks in my nightstand twice each night before bed. Just in case.

Despite reportedly committing over 100 burglaries, 50 rapes, and 13 murders throughout California from 1974-1986, maybe it was the killer’s psychological torture that struck a nerve. Not only would the killer select couples, but he would attack when they were the most vulnerable, while they slept.

The males were beaten but rarely killed. Instead, they were forced to stand by, helplessly, while he raped and occasionally murdered the female in the other room. Many of these men were ex-military, some had guns in the house, and all of them were crippled in some capacity after their encounter with the infamous Golden State Killer. In fact, many victims stated the perpetrator would linger for hours, sitting in perfect silence, just a few feet away. Then the victims would finally feel it was safe to move, to free themselves from the state of terror he’d left them in, only to have his knife pressed against their neck as he asked one last time, “do you want to die?”

He relished in those moments when he watched his victims’ spirit break one last time. It was as if the psychological torture was more thrilling to him than the physical attack. His quest to destroy people was never more apparent than a phone call to one of his victims more than two decades later where he whispered, “Remember when we played?”

Whether he ever reached out again or not, every single relationship he touched was tarnished. In fact, many broke up, but even the couples that managed to stay together were never whole again. Some cuts are simply too deep to ever completely heal.

One thing I am sure about is that Michelle McNamara was a great writer. Not only was she a dogged researcher, she never distanced herself from the story. This meant she told the victims’ stories with deep empathy and care. While each attack was revisited in full detail, each victim remained a human being. Never once did a victim’s tragedy read like a series of events or statistics.

This sensitive touch not only enabled me to empathize with each victim but also enhanced my disdain for the predator that ruined their lives forever. McNamara’s writing also made me feel like I was part of her team somehow. Like I was an active member of the investigation. Despite having no actual connection whatsoever, I felt frustrated with each dead end and inspired with each new break in the case. Maybe this connection I felt with her writing is what scared me so much.

While I can’t say for sure, maybe this one hit home because of its toll on its author, McNamara. Her obsession (which likely played a role in her death in 2016, two years before the book was published) burrowed deep within her and eventually ate its way out. The image of her researching the darkest elements of the human condition in the middle of the night, surrounded by stuffed animals night after night slides an ice cube down my spine, even as I write this three days after completing the book. All I know is Michelle McNamara’s I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is one of the best books I’ve ever read, and I’ve read A LOT of books. 

With the book fresh in my mind, I am excited to watch this week’s premiere of part one of the HBO six-part documentary series by the same title. Even with HBO’s stellar track record for making great documentaries, I doubt it will be better than the book. My only hope is that the documentary goes deeper into Michelle’s story, without taking anything away from her incredible hunt for the Golden State Killer. 

If you are like me, you’ll be watching in the dark and later sleeping with the lights on—if at all.