Some readers, though eclectic in their tastes, have areas that they don’t tend to stray into. True Crime is the sort of genre that attracts people who are really into true crime. What satisfies them may not hit the spot for your average Joe who doesn’t stray onto that side of the non-fiction tracks. Crimes aren’t always solved, and facts aren’t always known; those who are looking for neat packages may be discouraged.
This is the case for I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, which is about an unsolved string of rapes and murders, written by an author who herself passed away in the process of compiling the book. I’ll Be Gone in the Dark has become a blind alley in a blind alley, a doubly unsolved mystery which can never deliver on its promise. Is it satisfying to True Crime afficionados, or is I’ll Be Gone in the Dark a book published solely on the strength of its authorial cachet?
Michelle McNamara, first wife of comedian Patton Oswalt, loved True Crime. She consumed it, but she also analysed it and synthesised it into her own research and theories on her blog, True Crime Diary . Her main fixation was the case of the Golden State Killer, a serial rapist and murderer who attacked multiple communities in California in the seventies and eighties.
I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is not just the story of a man who terrorised the East Coast of the USA for the better part of a decade, but the story of a woman who was raised in a large family and was forever changed by the unsolved murder of a local woman when she was 14. McNamara’s interest in the Golden State Killer (a moniker she coined herself, and one not fully integrated into the book) becomes such a part of her life that she is able to incorporate autobiographical details into her book without making them seem extraneous. Therein lies the difficulty: the Golden State Killer is the subject of I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, but McNamara is its soul. What mostly amounts to conjecture comes to life through McNamara’s anecdotes and character studies of people close to the case. Her voice is one that helps an novice understand why people get into True Crime in the first place. The loss of McNamara becomes a tragedy that overshadows the book – this is not a posthumously published work, it’s a posthumously published incomplete effort.
It does not take long to become clear that McNamara’s editors, researcher Paul Haynes, and investigative journalist Billy Jensen did not know how they wanted to conclude her work, or if they wanted to. They felt duty bound to put something out, but McNamara hadn’t actually assembled enough of her work to make I’ll Be Gone in the Dark nearly a satisfactory piece of investigation. Around the 20% mark, editor’s notes about what is missing become increasingly prevalent, suggestions that chapters are just adapted from early published pieces rather than being specifically crafted for the book are distressingly common, and part three, written by Haynes and Jensen, is a 27 page write-off of loose ends, lists and charts. Without McNamara, facts become plain and clinical. The case no longer feels alive, as the person it consumed has left us. It’s not that we necessarily care who the Golden State Killer is – although his crimes are horrific, and justice should be served – but we care that McNamara cared. To simply see a six page segment terminated with the proviso “Michelle had planned to cover it at great length, but Ventura is only lightly represented in the book due to her protracted quest to obtain the highly elusive case file” is frustrating.
I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is a monument to its deceased author, but unfortunately McNamara died too early in the process (ideally, of course, she would not have died at all) for the product to work. This is not like the case of the musical Rent, where Jonathan Larson died the day before previews started and they froze the show; Rent could have been tinkered with had Larson lived, but it was essentially done. It’s hard to put a number on how complete I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is, percentage wise, but it is nowhere near ready for publication. Had she lived, McNamara might never have solved the case, but she would have finished her book. Even with the augmentation of her well-meaning comrades, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is neither complete nor satisfying.
Part Three promises that Haynes and Jensen will keep pursuing the case on True Crime Diary (although, at the time of writing, the site has not been updated since June 2015). Perhaps the True Crime afficionados will follow them there, but for anyone not that way inclined, these crimes simply aren’t interesting enough to take the leap into the further unknown.