One of the fundamental problems that the modern true crime ressurgance has encountered has been the issue of how to resolve voyeurism as a major facet of true crime. I’m sure (I know for a fact) that I’m not the first to comment on this at all, and more and more of the discussion around “true crime” or “crime nonfiction/crime history” or whatever we want to call it nowadays, for the better, is not just looking at what the crime or the event or the con was, but also in how the victims were involved and ultimately effected (or looking at WHY we might be biased against including mention of them in the conversation).
It’s undeniable that a huge aspect of this type of media revolves around a desire to rubberneck, to get a possible chance to look at a body, a crime scene, the collapse of someone’s life. It’s an ugly truth that no one necessarily wants to acknowledge (among all the ugly truths of the dark side of true crime that revolve around voyeurism, privilege, et al), but it’s important to discuss when we read about stuff like that.
The upside to the recognition of this aspect is that when it’s fully and properly addressed, the literature of true crime truly shines. Michelle McNamara’s look at the history of the Golden State Killer case and tracking it both culturally and chronologically is that shine, because one of the things that she did incredibly well is truly imparting the fear and ugly horror of the crime’s impact not only on victims, but on the circle of California’s population as a whole a the time.
I’d been looking forward to McNamara’s book I’ll Be Gone In The Dark for a while, and not only did it not disappoint, but it managed to come out in the end despite her premature death in 2016 with the book only about 3/4 finished. The work of researchers, editors, and the diligence of her husband (comedian Patton Oswald) to bring the whole work together as well as they did manages to collate (versus scrape) together a collection of work that feels dense but not necessarily in a heavy and unorganized fashion.
An interesting note is that I had to put the book aside at one point for a few days, honestly. Not because it’s told in a somewhat nonlinear structure that can feel confusing and weighty, working hard to cover a lot of material that can’t easily be broken down (something that I feel true crime skimps on at times) but because of what it really manages to do;
It conveys a sense of uncomfortable dread and legitimate fear. I felt uncomfortably scared reading this.
McNamara’s writing managed to not only give us an interesting and un-troubling lens to view true crime through, but also with her language and her tone, her imagination, manages to make the reader feel like they were there, and not as a casual observer. You’re a potential target, and that imparts a weight to the narrative she covered to truly make the reader aware of the fear and consequences. It’s something that true crime tries and struggles with, often sacrificing that weight in favor of wanting to build historical narratives around the context of crimes, but if you draw too much away from the people who were affected, it dilutes the point.
Nothing about this work and the focus it brought (back) to the Golden State Killer case feels watered down or sleazy. It can be a difficult swim to get through, but it’s worth it.