A Review of I'll Be Gone in the Dark by Brynne Rebele-Henry

HarperCollins. 328 pages. ISBN 978-0-06-231978-4

By Brynne Rebelle-Henry

“That summer I hunted the serial killer at night from my daughter’s playroom. For the most part I mimicked the bedtime routine of a normal person. Teeth brushed. Pajamas on. But after my husband and daughter fell asleep, I’d retreat to my makeshift workspace and boot up my laptop, that fifteen-inch-wide hatch of endless possibilities.”

Michelle McNamara was the one who came up with the name, Golden State Killer, for the serial killer who, for a decade, stalked middle class neighborhoods in California, sexually assaulting 50 victims and murdering 12. Before, he had been known by detectives working the case as the Night Stalker—slipping in and out of suburban homes, disabling their security alarms, the trail immediately running cold. These cases were relatively obscure until McNamara started covering them in her true crime website. Over the years she worked closely with officials and families involved with the case in an attempt to find the killer. In the end, she never saw her search fulfilled, as she passed away before finishing the book. I’ll Be Gone In The Dark was published posthumously; the manuscript was put together by her husband and those close to her and the case. The Golden State Killer was caught shortly after the book’s release.

McNamara’s I’ll be Gone in the Dark is a rare creation—at once, a true crime account, a mystery, and a searing look into the reality of unsolved murder cases in the justice system. But it is also a beautifully written and often funny memoir of one woman’s attempt to reconcile her life’s pursuit of darkness. In one especially personal chapter, she writes of the murder of her childhood neighbor, which inspired her to become a true crime writer.

At times, reading this, I wondered if McNamara felt she was writing a ghost story. The book does, in a way, read like a requiem both for the victims and for those haunted by these crimes, the detectives, the families of the victims and McNamara herself, spending her nights feverishly working in her daughter’s nursery. Her brilliance lies in the hushed urgency of her prose, her innovative research, and her uncanny ability to recapture and encapsulate the crime scenes 30-something years later, breathing life back into the stories of those who are gone. She gives a dimension to the victims, refusing to simply capture them in the manner of most victims of violent crimes, who are reduced to casualties or faceless statistics.

She writes about their lives, their sadness, their homes, the things they tried to be, and the things they weren’t, with a clear-eyed humanity. In her account of one of the murders, she preserves a moment between a fighting mother and daughter.

“What Debbi Domingo remembers the most about the last time she talked with her mother, Cheri, is that they didn’t talk. They screamed. It was Sunday, July 26, 1981, high summer in Santa Barbara. The coastal fog, with its smell of damp eucalyptus, was gone. The Pacific Ocean was warming up, an inviting churn of whitecaps making its way toward soft sand and an endless line of hundred foot palm trees.”

Perhaps the most striking part of this book is the beauty and grace of her writing, even while confronted with the violent acts of the killer she spent years searching for.

“He disabled porch lights and unlocked sliding glass doors. He emptied bullets from guns. Unworried homeowners’ closed gates were left open; pictures he moved were put back, chalked up to the disorder of daily life. The victims slept untroubled until the flashlight’s blaze forced open their eyes. Blindness disoriented them. Sleepy minds lumbered, then raced. A figure they couldn’t see wielded the light, but who, and why?”

In the final chapter of the book, “Letter To An Old Man,” a letter to the killer she wrote in case she failed to catch him in her lifetime, she writes, “Blindfolded, the victims relied on smell and hearing. Floral talcum powder. Hint of cinnamon. Chimes on a curtain rod. Zipper opening on a duffel bag. Coins falling to the floor. A whimper, a sob. ‘Oh, Mom.’ A glimpse of royal blue brushed-leather tennis shoes. The barking of dogs fading away in a westerly direction. You were what you left behind: a four-inch vertical cut window screen at the ranch house on Montclair, in San Ramon. A green-handled hatchet on the hedges. A piece of cord hanging in a birch tree.”

The book ends with McNamara’s letter urging the killer to come forward.

“You’re long past leaping over a fence. Take one of your hyper, gulping breaths. Clench your teeth. Inch timidly toward the insistent bell. This is how it ends for you. ‘You’ll be silent forever, and I’ll be gone in the dark,’ you threatened a victim once. Open the door. Show us your face. Walk into the light.”