Monday, May 21, 2018

Signal Watch Reads: I'll Be Gone In The Dark (2018 - Audiobook)

I'd intended to read Michelle McNamara's true-crime book, I'll Be Gone In The Dark (2018), this year at some point, but was propelled to listen to the audiobook when, in late April, the subject of the book was apprehended in California.

Before the book is run-over, borrowed-from, and absorbed by osmosis as documentaries and news stories rushed into production - and likely a feature film or three - I wanted to hear what McNamara had to say and where she was in her crowd-sourced, DIY investigation into the Golden State Killer, a serial rapist and murderer who was active in multiple California communities in the late 70's and into the early 80's, before simply vanishing.

The story around the book and author will be remembered as much as whatever happens eventually to the GSK, and has the curious feel of unlikely movie pitch.  After years spent as a true-crime blogger and citizen investigator, McNamara passed very suddenly in April 2016, aged 46, victim of an undiagnosed heart condition.  For the last few years, her primary focus had been on an unknown serial rapist, burglar and murderer - and she had been very publicly on his trail.  She was also the spouse of comedian and actor Patton Oswalt.  You can almost imagine the pitch to the studio for a weekly comedy/ drama about an eccentric crime investigator who spends the wee hours tracking down killers and is less than thrilled to take to the red carpet alongside their famous significant other.

McNamara's untimely death is a tragedy, not least to her family and friends, but because one gets the feeling (though she makes no such claim in the book) that her assistance with the official investigation and dragging it back into the spotlight helped get the killer, by giving the investigators a peer and support, if the leads she was producing weren't what caught the killer eventually (and more on that).  She should have been here to see law-enforcement walk the GSK into a courtroom.

My true-crime reading is limited, and it's been a while since I left the TV dial on basic-cable true-crime programming.  I'll peruse magazine or online articles, but In Cold Blood wrecked me, and another book I tried to read based on a client of my brother's bosses firm, was so grisly and depressing, I'm not sure I get the appeal of spending so much time with these stories.  No other true-crime readings that aren't the Rick Geary graphic novels I devour leap immediately to mind.

The story of I'll Be Gone In The Dark could have gone a lot of ways - every writer who would have come at these same facts, perhaps even with McNamara's dogged determination, but all would have produced a different book.  Fortunately, McNamara, honestly, had an incredible gift for storytelling, narrative and character.  Because the book was completed by colleagues and friends with chapters and an intro provided by others, there's some hagiography dedicated to why and how her writing works - but it's all well deserved and true.

The same impulse that kept her up to all hours seeking new information and making endless new contacts and inroads on a cold case that went dark before she was in high school gives the book an immediacy without either breathless purple prose or a ledger sheet of atrocities.  The book is surprisingly, hauntingly, human.

The GSK is not posed as a mastermind, rather, what he accomplished and how is put against the methods and tools of the time.  Not much of which will surprise anyone over a certain age.  Still, there's an acknowledgment of the drive and obsession but cool intellect that had to be at play.  The missing face that refuses to reveal itself the blackhole drawing everything in.

But McNamara's sympathy for the victims and those in the orbit of the victims, is palpable - if by no other indication that the careful selection of omission of details but by what she allows to be inferred.  Yes, she'll state the facts of a crime scene, but after someone's home has been broken into, their bodies violated, and - as occurred in several cases - all that's left are bodies and a crime scene, victims, friends and family have to pick up and move on.

More than that - what could be repetitive descriptions of methods and crime scenes are framed in narrative - McNamara pulling out a few key cases of the dozens of invasions.  In some she describes the lives of the victims up until they woke to find a man in their bedroom, in others she tracks what is believed to have occurred as the GSK prowled darkened neighborhoods.

Remarkably, McNamara also doesn't remove herself from the narrative.  The hunt shouldn't be personal, but she knows it is, and the why's and wherefore's are explored.  Similarly she tries to understand the police, many of them decades off the case but still invested, others still living it as if it's occurring now, but who were children when the incidents took place.  Like the cops she discusses, she and her fellow citizen investigators ran down lead after lead.  She may not have interviewed suspects, but she went above and beyond curiosity in her search to put a name and face to the elusive shadow.

If the emptiness of the killer's face is the force of gravity that drives McNamara's prose and efforts, her own absence in completing the book is it's own silent cold spot in the room.  The broken, not-done, editor-having-to-insert-themselves-to-explain bits of the book are heartbreaking.  We get pieces of articles as book chapters to fill in blanks, transcriptions of interviews, and finally a closing section provided by others.

As a library professional, specifically someone working in digital libraries, I kept wondering "why haven't they done X" or "they should try Y", and, it turns out I'm not a singular genius.  Toward the end of her own writing, McNamara begins pointing the way toward these evolving technologies and techniques, and - she was right.  The cop she spent the last part of the book working with is in agreement, having come upon those techniques himself.

From what I've gathered in the reporting around the arrest of Joseph James Deangelo, what was described in the book was what, ultimately, wound up identifying a plausible suspect.

I can't recommend the book to everyone - it's full of grisly detail and nothing good happens to anyone in the book.  The denouement took place shortly after publication and will be added, I am sure, in the next edition.  McNamara's book is being cited in many but not all articles on the GSK, the killer she actually named, whose crimes sprawled further than the originally believed area and enfolding several different uncaught repeat criminals into one person.  I don't think journalists covering the story have read the book - there hasn't been time.

But it's going to be a long-remembered book in the field, I'm guessing.  One a great cut above the rest - maybe not Capote, but literary on its own.

As an audio book, Gabra Zackman pulls dual duty as both stand in for McNamara and as the voice of "now", and reminding the listener "Michelle was unable to finish the book" via editor's notes and explanations.  Her delivery hits the right notes - dropping into characters when working from quotes, the voice of the reasonable journalist when on the case, and when she's speaking for McNamara, she finds a delicate balance - not building a character exactly, but giving herself room to emote.  The main chapters are bookended by an intro by writer Gillian Flynn and outro by her husband Patton Oswalt.  Neither is morbid or mournful, but we do wonder what would have been next had McNamara seen the GSK feeble and in prison togs.

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