It took me exactly two pages to become engrossed in Michelle McNamara’s self-described “obsessive search for the Golden State Killer.” But that was no surprise. Given my fascination with true crime, my love for the My Favorite Murder podcast (which introduced me to said fascination and the GSK in general), my appreciation for the comedian Patton Oswalt (the author’s widower), and the recent capture of Joseph James DeAngelo—the monster who terrorized California as the Visalia Ransacker, the East Area Rapist, and the Original Night Stalker between April 1974 and May 1986—there was no question of whether I would love this book.
What I was not expecting was Michelle. Friggen. McNamara. Her mastery of language and the musicality with which she writes terrible and unfathomable things is incredible. Truly. I often had to stop and re-read passages just so I could appreciate how beautifully written they were, despite the content. I can’t gush about her enough, so I’ll just show you with a relatively mild but wildly evocative passage—
Excerpted from the chapter entitled “Goleta, 1979”:
Cheri watched the city swallow her daughter and worried. Santa Barbara beguiled. It deceived. The promise of romance reigned, an the potential for danger was obscured. After a nineteen-second earthquake shattered much of downtown Santa Barbara in 1925, the city was rebuilt in a unified Spanish Colonial style—white plaster walls, low-pitched red tile roofs, wrought iron. Preservation-minded civic leaders continued to keep buildings low and billboards out. There was a gentle small-town feel to the place. Every day for thirty-two years, a Greek immigrant, “the popcorn man,” sold pinwheels and popcorn from his station wagon at the foot of Stearns Wharf. The smell of night-blossoming jasmine drifted in through open windows on hot evenings. The roar of the ocean rocked people to sleep.
But instability lurked. A raggedy undercurrent oiled. The recession had gutted a lot of downtown businesses. There was not yet and open-container law on lower State Street; at night weaving drunks shouted at each other between breaks to piss and puke. The music clubs were changing. Folk and disco were out, replaced by angrier punk. The local papers were reporting that an anonymous male caller was telling children ages eleven to fifteen who answered the phone that they were going to die. Another caller, maybe the same man, was telling women that he’d hurt their husbands if they didn’t comply with his demands. Local cops nicknamed the unidentified creep “our breather.”
[. . .]
Santa Barbara’s magenta bougainvillea could distract you from its hairline cracks. Cheri hoped no harm would come to Debbi out there. Every mother’s brain cycles through the litany of terrible things that might befall her child. Rarely does the reverse occur. Why should it? Especially for teenagers, who between seeing their parents as God and then as human view them temporarily as an obstacle, a particularly cumbersome door that won’t quite budge.
No, it was Debbi who was . . . “at risk.” The story rarely ends well for the beautiful teenage runaway. This time it did.
Not being home saved Debbi Domingo’s life.
SEE?! What did I just say?
I did not read this book as part of a challenge or book club. I read this book because I could not wait to get my hands on it. Michelle’s untimely passing meant that her story was left unfinished, and her personal mission to find the GSK was unrealized. Luckily though, she had not been working alone. The men who took up the gauntlet to finish I’ll Be Gone in the Dark gave a valiant effort—one that reads nothing like Michelle’s voice, thereby honouring the work that she had completed by ensuring it would outshine their own submission. And while I would have much preferred to read a full account of how she lived to track down the monster that occupied her waking hours as well as her nightmares, Paul Haynes and Billy Jensen deserve much praise for finishing her book so that her achievement could be brought into the light where we can sing high its praises.
And, of course, shout out to The Man Paul Holes (#HotforHoles) and everyone involved in the impressive capture of DeAngelo. To quote Michelle: “This is how it ends for you.”